This article provides a comprehensive overview of the use of reflexology in pregnancy and post-childbirth period. Reflexology is a popular form of complementary therapy.
About the author:
Sally Earlam BSc. PGCE. FMAR, is the Maternity specialist for the Association of Reflexologists (UK). Sally Earlam is a qualified Nurse, Teacher, and Reflexologist and a mother of 2. She currently works for the Association of Reflexologists and runs Maternity Reflexology training courses for qualified Reflexologists.
Reflexology for supporting the Maternity Journey
For most women finding out they are pregnant is a time for joy and celebration but there are also times throughout the pregnancy when women may need some additional support and reflexology is one option for improving wellbeing. There may be concerns about common pregnancy symptoms or emotional issues; however much the pregnancy was wanted there can still be concerns about money, worries about how it may affect the relationship with their partner, what will happen with work? Etc and of course changing hormone levels.
Reflexology in pregnancy aims to optimise the physical and emotional health of the pregnant woman and therapists are also able to provide general lifestyle advice and offer support. One benefit of receiving reflexology during pregnancy is that it allows time away from often busy lives and provides a time and space where you can focus purely on yourself and your growing baby – this should not be underestimated, it is so important that you have time to be able to clear your mind and to think through and talk about how you are feeling about the arrival of a new baby into your life.
All information will be treated as confidential so it is a time where you can share your worries and concerns, however, small these may be – by speaking things through, can in itself make you feel so much better.
Many women are now choosing to have reflexology throughout their pregnancy and postnatally as it can offer many benefits such as aiding relaxation, reducing anxiety, generally de-stressing and improving sleep. However you view reflexology there is no doubt that it provides a period of time where the client has one to one attention, relaxation and supportive touch in an empathic and non-judgemental listening environment which all help build resilience and allow patients to gain both mental and physical strength.
Other women seek reflexology for support with common conditions that can arise during pregnancy such as constipation, low back pain, heartburn, anxiety, depression etc or to help prepare their body for birthing. Reflexology acknowledges that every person is unique, and so it is not possible to know in advance how you will react to a treatment and what benefits you will get –
The only way to know is to try it!
What the research says about reflexology in pregnancy and perinatal period:
– Two studies have shown that reflexology in pregnancy significantly reduced pain during labour (1, 2) and reduced the length of the first stage of labour (1).
– One study showed improved quality of sleep in post-natal women (3)
– One study showed that 6 weekly treatments of reflexology prior to giving birth on for women who experienced low back and/or pelvic girdle pain during their pregnancy significantly reduced the second stage of labour by 44.3 minutes (4).
– Reduced pain and stress levels for women with low back pain or pelvic girdle pain (5)
– Foot reflexology was found to have a positive effect in lowering the total anxiety scores of women in labour (6)
There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence of women benefitting from having reflexology during their pregnancy and their post-natal period and is an area for more research.
What is reflexology?
Reflexology is a complementary therapy which is based on the theory that different points on the feet, lower leg, hands, face or ears correspond with different areas of the body. Reflexologists believe that working these points or areas aids relaxation and helps improve wellbeing.
If this sounds far-fetched to you there are actually two studies from Japan using functional magnetic resonance imaging that show increased blood flow into the specific area of the brain that corresponds to the reflexology point that is being worked on the foot. So when the eye point was pressed the facial area of the brain lit up.(7, 8)
This supports the fundamental premise of reflexology that by working a specific reflex area on the feet has an effect on blood flow in the analogous area of the body.
Reflexology for supporting Maternity Journey
Reflexology in First Trimester
Reflexology can be used safely throughout pregnancy; Reflexologists will take a full history to ensure that it’s safe and appropriate to carry out a treatment.
The first trimester is a time when there are huge changes in hormone levels as well as anxieties and concerns about the changes that are going to happen. Both of these factors may leave you feeling delighted, anxious, exhilarated, weepy and exhausted – sometimes all at once. The therapist will aim to aid relaxation, de-stress and offer support.
Although there is a small risk of miscarriage in any pregnancy there is no evidence that reflexology can cause a miscarriage or increase the risk. Many women find the support reflexology offers of great benefit at this time. Do check the reflexologist has experience and training in Maternity Reflexology.
Reflexology in Second and third trimester
In the second and third trimester, most of the discomforts of early pregnancy have gone.
However, as the baby grows you may begin to experience other physical symptoms. Your stress levels may also rise as the birth becomes more imminent. Reflexology can be used for general well-being or to address other health issues such as sleeping problems as they arise. Of course, the therapist will also be there to support you through any worries or concerns that you may have.
Reflexology in the Post-natal period
This joyful time is the start of a new and exciting era in your life but it can also bring new challenges; you may be questioning if you are doing everything right, falling hormone levels can leave you feeling low, tearful or anxious. These feelings can then be exacerbated by lack of sleep.
I believe that this is another key time when reflexology can be of great benefit. A research study has shown that post-natal women had improved quality of sleep with reflexology (3) which can just make you feel better able to cope. Yet it is a time when women often wonder how they can fit it in when their baby is not yet is a fixed routine.
If you are feeling in need of a little boost or just some ‘me’ time then try looking for a mobile therapist (see details of finding a therapist below) who can come to you. If the baby needs a feed you can feed the baby during the treatment, wind them on your shoulder and then lie the baby tummy to tummy (unless there is a parent, partner or friend available to take baby after the feed) and as you relax with the reflexology, the baby calms and will sleep soundly there on your tummy – I have never done a treatment with a crying baby! Once you realise reflexology is possible in your new routine and you feel the benefits of the treatment you may well be hooked!
Frequently asked questions
Can reflexology turn a breech baby?
Turning a breech baby is a manual procedure generally carried out in a hospital known as external cephalic version, this is where an obstetrician tries to turn the baby into a head-down position by applying pressure on the abdomen. Before an ECV is attempted an ultra-sound scan is used to confirm that it would be safe for the baby to turn and the procedure can be very uncomfortable but around 50% of breech babies can be turned with this method.
So in essence reflexology cannot manually turn a breech baby and it is important to differentiate this in your mind as to what we do as reflexologists. There is anecdotal evidence of women whose babies have turned after reflexology and I have seen this myself. However, this is on a much more subtle level than the manual turn. The belief is that reflexology can sometimes create relaxation in the pelvic girdle and surrounding muscles and therefore creating space for the baby to turn if it is safe for it to do so.
Can Reflexology induce labour?
Most babies will deliver naturally by 42 weeks, but approximately 15% will need to be induced. In a similar way to turning a breech baby, inducing labour is a medical procedure carried out in a hospital. What we do as reflexologists is again much more subtle than the medical procedures and we talk in terms of preparing the body for birth. Even encouraging relaxation at this time, when women are often worried about the birth, can sometimes be enough for labour to start. If the body has high levels of stress hormones the body is essentially in fight or flight mode and so her body is saying – don’t go into labour but run somewhere that is safe for you.
As your due date approaches, you may find it useful to visit a reflexologist more frequently.
Although there is no evidence that reflexology can induce labour, the general view is that it will help support the body to prepare for the birth and promote relaxation at a time when anxiety levels are often high.
Having a baby, whether or not it is your first pregnancy, will bring you plenty of wonderful experiences and new challenges and using reflexology may just help you on this journey.
How to find a professional reflexologist in the UK: www.aor.org.uk
If you are interested in receiving Reflexology it is essential that you find someone experienced and that is properly qualified and insured. The Association of Reflexologists www.aor.org.uk has a ‘Find a Reflexologist’ page on their website where you can locate one of their members in your area. The letters MAR, FMAR, HMAR after a reflexologist’s name denotes their membership and that they have reached stringent levels of qualifications and experience.
(1) Valiani M et al. (2010) Reviewing the effect of Reflexology on pain and outcomes of the labour of primiparous women. Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research. 15 (Dec) p302-310
(2) Iran Red Crescent Med J 2011; 13(7):475-479 ©Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal
(3) Lic Y C et al (2011) Randomised controlled trial of the effectiveness of using foot reflexology to improve quality of sleep amongst postpartum women. Midwifery. 27. p181-186
(6) The Effect of Foot Reflexology on the Anxiety Levels of Women in Labour. Yılar Erkek Z, Aktas S. J Altern Complement Med. 2018 Apr;24(4):352-360
(7) Somatotopical relationships between cortical activity and reflex areas in reflexology: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Nakamaru T, Miura N, Fukushima A, Kawashima R. Neurosci Lett. 2008 Dec 19;448(1):6-9. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2008.10.022.
(8) Activity in the primary somatosensory cortex induced by reflexological stimulation is unaffected by pseudo-information: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Miura N, Akitsuki Y, Sekiguchi A, Kawashima Complement Altern Med. 2013 May 27;13:114.