Massage and shiatsu during birth: Why is the right kind of touch so important in pregnancy and birth? For mother and for baby.
Parents to be often come to me wanting to learn a technique of massage or shiatsu which will help them avoid medical pain relief and give birth more easily. Or so that their partner can have something to do during the birth. Or because they want to have something done to help them go into labour naturally without medical induction.
It is true that massage/shiatsu can often produce these desired effects. Many of the women I have worked with over the years have gone into labour sponatenously soon after having received massage or shiatsu. Many others have found that massage/shiatsu is in fact all the pain relief they need, even during long, tiring births. But massage/ shiatsu offer so much more.
Touch is the earliest sense we develop in the womb. Already at 8 weeks, there are some reflex responses to touch. Sensitiivity begins around the mouth, then soon after the soles of feet and the palms of hands. Many parents observe that their babies respond to sound before the ear is fully developed at around 24 weeks. However when we first “hear” our parents voices it is not through our ears but the physical vibration of the voice in our body, transmitting so much more than words. Vision doesn’t really begin until around 30 weeks: after all there is not much to see in the womb.
Touch is thus the predominant way in which we relate to our world in the womb until 24 weeks, and even after that it is still the most important way a baby experiences life in the womb and even during the early months after birth. Nowadays research shows how important these early womb experiences are. When I touch a pregnant client, or teach a mum how to massage her own womb, I bring all of our awarenesses to the way I am touching and what we are communicating through touch. Touch can be a way to listen, to reassure, or simply to be present. This is why I also try to involve the dad, the mother’s partner. Touch is our first form of communication. And the baby is aware of us, before we are aware of them. I find it mind blowing to realise that even before we feel our baby move (from about 12-16 weeks on), our baby can feel us touching them (from about 8 weeks)!
So when a woman has massage or shiatsu it is vital that the therapist is aware of how they are relating to the baby. It is also fundamental to respect the mother’s relationship with her baby: because that is the most vital. Some women become very aware not just of their babies physical movements, but even how they might be feeling. Interesting conversations regularly take place! Women who are going through various kinds of tests because of concerns about fetal growth or development, often find their babies reassuring them that everything is just fine! On the odd occasion babies have let the mother know that something is indeed of concern: and this is often before any medical test reveals an issue. Sometimes beautiful images of the baby arise: one mother once said “ I really felt my baby as a living being for the first time and realised that they are such a precious jewel that I am growing inside me” . Afterwards her relationship with her unborn child became much stronger.
This connection with the baby can also be experienced during birth itself. I find that women can be reassured by their baby or know that things aren’t going well: as they do during their pregnancies. Many women find that staying focused on their connection with their baby, and how their baby is experiencing birth, rather than focusing so much on their contractions, that they simply know how to move their body to support the birth process and don’t think about whether it is painful or how long it is taking. They enjoy the profound awareness of their baby working with their body. They feel the contractions as a positive way in which they are giving their baby a very powerful massage: preparing them for the journey down their birth canal and out into the expansive world.
This also means that we need to be very aware and sensitive to how we touch a baby during birth. Babies are sensitive to medical interventions. Of course the instruments used, such as forceps or ventouse can be quite painful to their bodies: but it is also the way in which the interventions are done which may be experienced as more or less traumatic. If the environment is stressful and emotionally charged, the baby will experience that. A student of mine, who also translates for me, loves telling her story of how she had to have a Caesarean because of various complications. The obstetrician was her best friend and she felt she and her baby were loved and supported throughout. She is convinced that this is why her baby and she recovered so easily and her scar healed so well. Even if we can’t all have our best friend delivering our baby, we can ask our obstetricians to talk to our baby and be sensitive to the way they touch them, even if it is an emergency.
However if this is not possible, I am always amazed at the capacity that babies have to heal quickly from even extremely traumatic events: as long as the trauma is acknowledged and they are supported to process it. Often this is simply by holding them, touching them, being aware of their sensitivity and simply allowing them to show us what they need from us. Touch again is a vital part of this healing process.
What I have found to be the most essential is to try to see things from the baby’s point of view. Sometimes intervention is a relief: if the baby has been stuck for hours and not moving, then perhaps being pulled out is a relief, even if it involves strong, perhaps painful touch.
When I work with clients who are having planned C sections I encourage them to consider how they can stay present with their baby during the birth. They can talk to them, or simply just be aware of what is happening from their babies point of view. Afterwards, because the baby hasn’t experienced the compression of the birth canal, then it is important to touch them in a definite way, trying to create some of the compressive massage that they didn’t experience in birth. Of course in a very sensitive way, responding to the amount of pressure which feels appropriate for each baby and at a pace dictated by them.
Whatever kind of birth then, it is important to continue to be aware of how we touch and relate to our babies. How do we greet our baby? What is going to be their first experience of touch from us after they are outside the womb? If the mother is not able to touch the baby because of intervention, then the father can have an important role to play.
Here is an example of a visualisation which I use to help women connect with their babies. It is on p 113 of my book “Beautiful Birth”
Connecting with your womb and baby (p113: Beautiful Birth)
“Find a place where you can sit comfortably. Focus on your breathing. With each out breath, allow your breathing to become deeper and your body to feel more relaxed. Close your eyes, if appropriate, and focus on your abdomen, where your womb is. Be aware of your womb as a space. Envisage a subtle light within. Be aware of its colour. Breathe gently, resting all your attention in your womb. Sense each breath going to its centre. Let each in breath bring with it more light. Let each out breath take with it any doubts to anxieties you have about your labour. Gradually your womb will become free of tension, allowing you to hear your baby. Let the breath go in and out and as it does, ask your baby to speak to you. For the next few minutes sit and listen. Your baby will begin to release emotions, thoughts and dreams. You may feel your breathing change. Let go of any fears or anxieties you may have about labour. If negative emotions appear, simply tell yourself they are leaving you easily and comfortably. If voices of doubt start to surface, gently tell them to leave. As you continue. Allow the womb to reveal itself as subtle, peaceful and warm.
Once you feel a sense of peace and connection, allow yourself and your baby to be in this relaxed space for as long as you need.
When you are ready to ease out of your relaxation, gradually become aware of the movement of your breath out and in. Gradually become aware of the room around you. Eventually on an out breath allow your eyes to open”
For more information on my work visit wellmother.org
Thank you to Joanna Lloyd for her lovely picture: inspired by the Heart-Uterus visualisation I posted recently.