Wouldn’t it be lovely and oh-so-convenient if there were some magic “labor-starting” buttons that could be pushed on a woman’s body? Alas (or perhaps, thankfully) these do not exist. We know that massage therapy cannot induce labor directly. It would also be impossible to determine if, should a woman go into labor shortly after receiving her massage, it was the massage that caused the shift, or if she was “naturally” about to start labor anyway.
So, then, how might massage be helpful for supporting a woman to OPEN to her labor process?
1 - The Relaxation Response. When feeling stressed, fearful, anxious, or unsafe, the sympathetic or “fight/flight” nervous system is activated and adrenaline (amongst other catecholamines) is released into the bloostream. Dr. Sarah Buckley writes in Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering, 2005 “...high adrenaline levels in the first stage of labor will inhibit oxytocin release, therefore slowing or even stopping labor. Adrenaline also acts to reduce blood flow to the uterus and placenta...” 1 Supportive, nurturing, deliberate, competent, non-judgmental touch can help diminish or interrupt the sympathetic stimulation and allow a more optimal hormone flow and balance, which could allow labor to unfold.
Oxytocin is the hormone that triggers uterine contractions. It is also considered the “love hormone” of bonding, it increases one’s pain threshold, and reduces anxiety. Touch can be one of the most helpful ways to increase oxytocin both prenatally and during labor (and after). One study showed that just ten minutes of gentle stroking by a trusted person increased oxytocin production and decreased blood pressure.2
2 - Brain Wave Changes. When someone receives massage, they are more likely to go from producing Beta waves (which are present when we are in an alert, cognitive, linear state of mind) to producing Alpha (creative, intuitive, right brained) and even Theta (attention turning inward, accessing the unconscious) waves. These waves are also present as a woman begins and deepens into her dance of labor!
3 - Body Balancing. Prenatal Massage specific to Labor Preparation often includes soft tissue release in the pelvic area, abdomen, and other related areas like the respiratory diaphragm. Melting and softening these myo-fascial structures may create more SPACE for baby to engage in the pelvis, and/or to tuck his chin at a better angle that more directly meets the softening cervix. Massage and other body balancing approaches (some of which are detailed at spinning babies.com) to the abdominal and uterine muscles/fascia/ligaments can help release any twists in the lower uterine segment that may be keeping baby in a less-than-optimal position.
3 - Energy Flow. Most labor preparation massage will include the “stimulation” of certain reflexive points/areas in the body that may influence the flow of energy or “Chi” and support any changes in the body that are naturally happening already. Systems of Western Reflexology orTraditional Chinese Medicine or both, are utilized with the gentle intention of downward energy, cervical dilation, or optimal uterus/ovary functioning.
4 - Visualization. Using rich and specific imagery can influence the physical body. Your Prenatal Massage Therapist can incorporate visualizations in your massage that may open up deeper layers of the body-mind to respond either to the natural hormones of labor, or to make more effective any synthetic hormones that are used medically to induce or augment labor.
5 - Connection. Sometimes, the time set aside for a warm, nourishing, deliberate, massage in late pregnancy is one of the few ritual times in our busy lives for a mother and her baby to really connect in a special way. Nurturing touch in a warm, dimly lit environment can also help oxytocin, the hormone of connection, to flow. It may also remind a soon-to-be birthing mother than she and her baby are working together as a team, regardless of when labor actually starts. She can tune into the subtle movements and messages within her own body and from her baby. Cultivating relationship is the priority, rather than trying to “get baby to come out.” Another thing to consider: when we are focused on connection, rather than achieving an outcome (like labor starting), then more oxytocin is able to flow, which, then may likely lead to labor starting!
We offer a supportive, sensation-focused, and safe “Opening to Labor” Massage that incorporates some or all of the elements described above. We look forward to working with you!
1. Buckley, Sarah J. Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering. One Moon Press, Anstead, Australia. 2005.
2. Wolf, Naomi. Vagina: A New Biography. HarperCollins. New York. 2012. p. 304 (referencing study by Dr. Light at the University of North Carolina's Medical Center in 2005)