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Using massage during labour

Hands on pain relief and relaxation

Posted: 29 November 2009
by Maria Muennich

What is massage and how does it work?
Most people are familiar with the use of massage to ease aches and pains, relieve stress and anxiety and revive flagging spirits. The massaging action warms and relaxes muscles and stimulates the release of your body's natural pain killers and mood enhancers - endorphins - which is just what you need during labour. Using aromatherapy oils diluted in a carrier oil can give your massage extra clout (see below).

During the second and third trimesters of pregnancy you may have visited a trained massage therapist for pain relief and relaxation. Sadly, trained massage therapists aren't that readily available to assist you during labour and birth, but there's no reason why your birth partner can't roll up his or her sleeves and provide some relaxing massage himself. Having the massage performed by someone close to you can be especially beneficial in labour as it provides reassuring physical contact with your birth partner: this is likely to be all the more powerful if that person is the father of your baby. Apart from anything else, it's a very tangible way in which he'll be able to help, so may also help him feel less powerless - a feeling commonly experienced by birth partners during labour.

When can I use massage?
You can use massage at any time during labour, depending on where you are feeling discomfort and what other pain relief you're using. Massage and the use of aromatherapy oils is generally compatible with most other forms of pain relief, however, certain oils, such as clary sage, are not recommended if you are using gas and air. If you have an epidural then massaging the back and shoulders may not be possible, but your partner can still massage other parts of the body to good effect.

Massage can be very effective using only a carrier oil for lubrication, but if you want to know what essential oils are recommended for use during labour take a look at this article and consult a trained aromatherapist if possible.

What kinds of massage are recommended for labour and birth?

  • Back - You may have enjoyed a steady supply of back massages and rubs from your partner during pregnancy as you coped with the effects of carrying around that extra weight. Back massage can also be very helpful in labour, particularly as it's common for women to feel contractions in the lower back. For early labour and general relief, your partner can use long, full strokes of light to medium pressure, using an open hand. A slow massage stroke is more soothing and you'll want to avoid the stimulation of fast strokes.

    In the later stages of labour or when lower back pain is a particular problem, your partner can modify the approach to apply pressure with either thumbs or the base of the hands on the lower back. You'll need good communication between you to ensure that the depth of pressure is suitable.

  • Shoulders - The muscles along the shoulder blades are often a tension hot-spot and tensing up your shoulders in labour can inhibit your breathing and take up valuable energy. Applying rhythmical medium to firm pressure on the shoulders will help you to relax them. Your partner can gently press down on your shoulders to help you release them before using his entire hands to slowly massage away the tension. You may find that it works well to work the thumbs in circles along the shoulder blades to the top of the spine and at the base of the neck.

  • Feet - Foot massages are among the most relaxing you can give and are great for general pain relief in the body - regardless of whether or not you have sore feet. You'll need to use a firm hand on the feet to have an effect, a light hand will do no more than tickle or irritate. Your partner can take a foot with both hands, sole facing outwards, and with fingers on the top of the foot, use the thumbs to stroke up and round. He can also try kneading the sole of the foot with a closed fist. For the top of the foot, try massaging with the thumbs again, from the toes up towards the ankles, either in small circles or with long strokes.

  • Head - Head massage can help you relax and recover in-between contractions. Circular motions around the jaw joints by the ear will help relieve facial tension. The jaw is also linked to your pelvic floor muscles, so tension in the jaw is a sign that your pelvic floor is tense - relief in the jaw will help the pelvic floor. The scalp itself can be massaged with long strokes with the fingertips, or by imitating a shampooing motion with fingertips.

  • Hips and legs - You're quite likely to have achey hips and legs during labour, particularly if you're trying to maintain a position that's unusual for you. The hips require firm pressure and you might find a kneading stroke with closed fist gives good relief. For legs, you can use a slow stroke with open hands along the whole leg, or repeated gentle squeezes to encourage circulation.

  • Hands - Depending on how your labour is going and what pain relief you're using, it might be that one or other of the areas listed above isn't easily accessible for massage. If other options are closed then a hand massage can still be a valuable tool for relaxation and reassurance, simply take a similar approach to the hands as with the feet.
What to remember
A bit of preparation from your partner and good communication between you on the day are the keys to massage working well for you in labour. If you want to try massage for labour then encourage your partner to read up on technique and to put in some practice beforehand, all the better for you!

In labour itself your partner may need to take the initiative in offering different massages and intuiting what will suit you best. Good communication between you can ensure that you get the right pressure and depth of massage. Once in the delivery room you may find that the massage is a distraction from your birthing efforts, or that you simply don't feel like being touched. It will help if your partner is prepared for the possibility that you could go either way.

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