Massage in Labour

Massaging Your Partner Through Labour

Put simply, massage is the process of manipulating the body’s soft tissues in order to relieve tension, reduce anxiety and relax muscles. This can be especially useful during labour and childbirth. But, this does not mean that massage during childbirth is right for every woman.

Some women will benefit from touch during labour, whereas some women will react adversely to it; some will find certain types of touch beneficial and other types unhelpful. Whatever the case, it is important that you listen to your partner, give her what she wants and do not take any of her criticisms personally.

Can massage provide pain-relief during labour?

When thinking about pain relief during labour, we typically think about the medical options, such as Entonox and epidural, but there a number of non-medical options that come highly recommended and one of them is massage.

It is generally thought that there are two different, but related, mechanisms by which massage works to relieve pain during labour – both result in reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increased levels of serotonin and dopamine. These two mechanisms can be summarised as follows:

  • Gate Control Theory: massage causes a surge in pleasurable sensations thereby lessening the degree to which the brain is receptive to competing painful sensations.
  • Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control: intense massage causes a certain level of pain thereby stimulating the brain into flooding the body with endorphins (the same hormone you produce after exercise or a fit of laughter). Proponents of this method say that “pain inhibits pain”.

The human factor

It is also important to remember that massage may bring benefit in simpler, more emotional ways. The simple act of touch can be reassuring and may be particularly beneficial to your partner when coming from you. This is because it serves to affirm your mutual bond, demonstrates your support for her, and helps to remind her that although she is the one who is experiencing contractions and physically giving birth, she is not alone.

Ideal positions for partner massage

Your partner is likely to move about quite a lot during labour and will naturally find the positions that allow her to feel most comfortable. However, it is useful to know that some of the best positions for pain-relieving labour massage include the following:

  • Your partner leaning forward on a birthing ball.
  • Your partner sitting on a chair that is turned back to front.
  • Your partner kneeling and leaning forward, resting on a bed or chair.

Remember too that a good massage, even when not given as pain-relief during labour, is as much about listening as it is about touch. This means listening to your partner’s breathing and subtle non-verbal cues so that you can respond intuitively to her needs.

Massaging the shoulders

The shoulders often hold a great deal of tension. If you place your hands on your partner’s shoulders and apply light pressure it will help to address any hunching and may reduce tension.

You may also decide to keep your hands resting on the top of her shoulders while you use your thumbs to massage in a calming circular motion behind her shoulder blades. When you feel that your partner is receptive to your touch and the time is right, you can apply long strokes from the shoulders to the elbows. You do not want to be too light but you do not want to be too firm either. You should also take care not to move to quickly or erratically – respond to cues from your partner to find out what works best for her and try to keep contact with your partner by keeping one hand on her skin at all times during the massage.

Massaging the back

If you massage your partner’s back, it may help her to endure the painful sensations of contractions. You can use the flat of your hand to make long strokes from the top of her back to just above her bottom, alternating from side to side. The key here is to be slow, firm and rhythmic without ever applying too much pressure or moving with too much speed.

As contractions increase in frequency and intensity, you can begin to counteract them by focusing more on the base of her spine and increasing the level of pressure you exert through the palm of your hand.

Massaging the feet and hands

You might wonder how massaging the feet and hands might benefit your partner when so much of the labour activity is happening in and around her uterus, cervix and birth canal. However, if she has had an epidural, a hand or foot massage is likely to be a great way to help calm her nerves and provide some distraction and relaxation.

Massage oils – are they safe?

While massage can be done through clothes, using massage oil on bare skin can make the process easier for you and more pleasurable for your partner. There are numerous pre-blended pregnancy massage oils on the market incorporating essential oils and fragrances, but you can use cheaper options, including baby oil.

However, before applying a massage oil you need to be 100 per cent certain that it is safe to use during pregnancy and labour, and that the oil or any additive or ingredient it contains is not going to be harmful to your partner or the baby – if you have any doubts, consult your midwife, doctor or obstetrician.

If you are using an essential oil, be sure to check its suitability for use in pregnancy and labour and always dilute it with the recommended amount of suitable, safe carrier or base oil.

Some of the most popular additives for use in labour massage include:

  • lavender
  • ylang-ylang
  • chamomile
  • mandarin
  • jasmine
  • geranium
  • sweet almond

What if my partner does not want the massage?

Even if your partner has been adamant that she would like a massage during labour, when the time comes she may change her mind. Don’t take it personally as it is likely that her change of heart has nothing to do with your technique but everything to do with thousands of years of evolutionary and genetic hardwiring; her body simply cannot cope with touch at this point in her labour.

The main thing is to be willing to give her a massage if she wants it and happy to stop if she asks you to.