What is postnatal massage?
Postnatal or postpartum massage is a style of full-body massage that occurs within the first six weeks of childbirth. It serves to facilitate recovery of the mother and return of her reproductive organs to their pre-pregnancy condition.
Traditional postpartum massage in Southeast Asia has strong roots in the Indonesian Javanese tradition. The specific techniques, however, have evolved over time to cater to modern preferences, such as the use of aromatherapy instead of traditional herbal concoctions. Suffice to say that the appeal of postnatal massage is not lost on the younger generation.
So what is the science behind postnatal massage?
Benefits of Postnatal Massage
The body goes through a whirlwind of changes during pregnancy and post-partum mums might find themselves in a rut, struggling with aches and pains. Apart from sheer relaxation, the purpose of massage for the postpartum mom involves:
- Reduced Swelling
After delivery, the post-natal body will continue to retain water because of the increase in the hormone, progesterone. Although the swelling shouldn’t last much longer than a week, massaging encourages the redistribution of water, lymphatic draining and circulation of excess fluids. All of which aids in restoring the body’s balance.
- Improved Milk Production
For mums seeking to increase their breast milk supply, post-natal massage is an effective and low-risk treatment choice. Post-natal massage therapy relaxes the body (increasing oxytocin) and increases overall circulation. Relaxation in the chest muscles opens up the shoulders and improves lactation. It has also shown to increase a lactation hormone, prolactin, which increases milk production.
- Hormone Regulation
The postpartum body is one of constantly fluctuating hormones. Hormones like oestrogen increase at a significant levels during pregnancy and then decrease after delivery. Postnatal massage can help elevate one’s mood and may encourage hormonal balance. It works to reduce stress hormone cortisol and balance naturally occurring biochemicals/neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, that when imbalanced is linked to depression.
- Reduced Anxiety and Depression
- Better Sleep
Massage can help to ease fatigue and support relaxation to improve quality of sleep. An intervention conducted at a post-partum centre in Taiwan, involving back massage in the postnatal period significantly improved the quality of sleep.
Supplementary Massages to consider
- Uterine Massage & Womb Recovery
Bleeding after childbirth can be due to factors such as the uterus failing to contract after delivery, a retained placenta or ruptures and tears. Uterine massage aids womb recovery and has been clinically proven to prevent haemorrhage. It involves placing a hand on the woman’s lower abdomen and stimulating the uterus by repetitive massaging or squeezing movements to promote contraction of the uterus. It is not to be confused with traditional sengkak, which has a completely different aim of repositioning a displaced uterus. (Sengkak itself has limited scientific basis.)
- C-Section Scar Massage
There are two types of C section scars. Scars are a normal part of the healing process. Massaging the scar tissue serves several important functions. Apart from helping to promote healing and softening of the underlying tissue/fascia, it also promotes collagen remodelling, decreases itching and provides moisture and flexibility to the scar.
Although postnatal massage is highly beneficial, there are some safety considerations:
- Pressure and Manipulation
Your massage experience is only as good and safe as the massage therapist. It is important to find a therapist who is not only skilled and certified to perform postnatal massage safely and effectively, but also one who can adjust the manipulation and pressure to your comfort and liking. Some women prefer a lighter style of massage especially soon after childbirth, while others enjoy deep-tissue techniques to release specific areas of tightness. Discuss any concerns with your massage therapist – remember you are in the driver’s seat!
- Frequency and Timelines
Traditional Javanese massage is usually performed every day for a period of seven to ten days. One of the reasons for the high frequency is that you would need the therapist to tie the traditional belly binder for you, which is a complicated process involving myriad of knots. With modern binders that you can put on yourself this daily routine is no longer necessary. Listen to your body and decide for yourself when you’re ready to begin treatment, how much you’re willing to spend on your postnatal care and how often you would like to have a massage. Bear in mind that your muscles need time to recover after each session and you would need as much support throughout the six-week puerperium as you adjust to your new life with your baby. When in doubt, especially if you’ve had complications, consult your doctor.
- Medical Contraindications
Postnatal massage is good for most moms but may bring harm to others. If the mother was considered a ‘high-risk’ during pregnancy, it is a first sign to take caution when it comes to post-natal massage. Other contraindications include; blood clots, miscarriage, stillbirth, maternal age under 20 or above 35, cardiovascular, liver or kidney disease, diabetes mellitus or gestational diabetes etc. Nonetheless, it is always best to check with your doctor when it is safe to start your post-natal massage journey
- Safety of Products Used
Ensure safety of all products used – traditional herbs, topical lotions, oils used in the treatment. Traditional therapies that involve herbal pastes lack research and can be harmful as they contain ginger and herbs that are unsuitable for breastfeeding mums. Improper use of these methods can cause allergic reactions to both mum and baby. Traditional therapies are common however further studies should be conducted to address benefits and risks during the postpartum period. In addition to physical touch, many postpartum massages include essential oils. These may be included in lotions or massage oils or diffused into the air. According to a 2020 review, aromatherapy may be applied as a non-invasive complementary intervention to promote physio-psychological comfort postpartum. Lavender was the EO that had the greatest effect on psycho-physiological health.
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