Stress has been defined as “any incident in the environment which causes an abrupt change in the mental, physical, or emotional equilibrium of an organism” and pregnancy certainly fits that description.

Common pregnancy related physical discomforts, such as nausea, backaches, swelling, etc. and emotional concerns may add to maternal stress levels. Long term exposure to heightened stress levels can lead to potentially serious health problems such as suppressed maternal immune function, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

stress during pregnancy

The blood catecholamines, norepinephrine and epinephrine, play a significant part during the stress response. The placental vascular bed is hypersensitive to the constrictive effects of epinephrine which can lead to failure of labor to progress and decreased placental circulation thereby inhibiting fetal nutrition.
In addition, these stress compounds dampen the effects of other hormones, such as oxytocin, which is essential for a normal progression of labor and maternal child bonding.

Effects of Stress on Pregnancy

  • low fetal birth weight and premature labor
  • delayed infant neuromotor development
  • dampened effectiveness of oxytocin
  • prolonged labor or failure to progress
  • uterine vasoconstriction
  • increased labor pain
  • elevated maternal heart rate and blood pressure
  • higher incidences of miscarriage
  • obstetrical complications
  • increase in stress hormones
  • increased likelihood of (maternal) unhealthy lifestyle habits
  • maternal depression
It is important to understand the complex influence of mother’s temperament on her growing baby.
Prenatal predisposition to stress can profoundly affect the in utero development and may predispose babies to higher risk of disease. If your clients are educated about ways to control the stressors in their lives, they and their babies will fare a lot better.
Severe stress during pregnancy has been linked with both physical as neurological disabilities. Obviously, an environment that reduces maternal stress and anxiety, such as massage, fosters relaxation and is essential for a health pregnancy and birth outcome.

Effects of Stress on Fetal Development

  • premature labor
  • low birth weight
  • high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease later in life
  • cognitive delays, such as autism and autistic spectrum disorders
  • neuromotor delays
  • behavioral problems, such as ADD
  • slowed brain development
  • obesity later in life
  • diabetes later in life
  • hypersensitivity
  • cleft lip and cleft palate

Massage and bodywork

Massage and bodywork, when appropriately administered during pregnancy, can have a powerful influence in mitigating the effects of stress.
Massage sedates and restores the nervous system. Proprioceptors of the deeper soft tissues relay messages to the central nervous system about muscle tension and blood pressure. The heat produced by massage signals both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems to correct, restore, and balance these self regulating mechanisms.
The relaxation effect is further enhanced by the pain reducing, or analgesic, effect it provides. Blood vessels dilate, waste products and toxins get reabsorbed and excreted, tissues become oxygenated, and pain is diminished. Beta-endorphins and serotonin, a neurotransmitter, are secreted during massage and work together to inhibit the central nervous system and produce that ‘feel good’ response.
Prenatal massage also addresses many of the musculoskeletal discomforts expectant women experience: backaches, abdominal pressure, swelling, sinus congestion, hemorrhoids, etc. can all be relieved or reduced by appropriate prenatal massage. In addition, the emotional and psychological effects of prenatal massage cannot be overlooked or underestimated. The nurturing and respectful touch given by a qualified practitioner helps the expectant mother achieve a sense of peace during the unsettling time. A woman who feels validated and affirmed through someone’s loving touch is also more likely to display better parenting skills, be more attentive to her baby, and touch her
child in a loving, supportive manner.
pregnant massage

Benefits of Prenatal Massage

  • reduces tension, stress, and anxiety
  • supports a healthy in utero environment
  • decreases chronic muscle tension, restores postural balance, normalizes joint range of motion
  • speeds up venous and lymph circulation, brings nutrients to tissues and eliminates waste products,
  • reduces swelling, eases varicose veins, normalizes blood pressure
  • fosters deeper breathing and enhances internal respiration
  • minimizes nausea, stimulates peristaltic activity
  • elevates mood, encourages loving maternal care
  • reduces pain
  • treats the common discomforts of pregnancy
  • prepares women physically, emotionally, and mentally for labor

Source: MotherMassage®: Massage During Pregnancy by Elaine Stillerman

Edema, or swelling, is normal during pregnancy.

edema during pregnancyBy the end of the third trimester, most women have a 40% increase in interstitial fluid in their bodies particularly in the legs and feet. Edema is aggravated by myofascial restrictions, compression of the heavy uterus on the iliac and femoral veins, the effects of progesterone on smooth muscles slowing the efficiency of lymph vessels, prolonged standing, hot weather, restrictive clothing, poor diet, excessive sodium in the diet, lack of exercise, and poor posture.
Edema during pregnancy is defined as an accumulation of fluid (water) in the interstitial tissues. The lymph system is intact and healthy but overworked and affected by progesterone and excessive fluid. Lymphedema, however, is an accumulation of fluid and protein in the tissues brought about by mechanical insufficiency as the transport capacity of the lymph system cannot remove the water or protein from the interstitial spaces. This pathological condition is caused by surgery, radiation, inflammation, or trauma but not pregnancy.

Here are some helpful hints to manage swelling during your pregnancy:

  • Increase water intake to 8 to 12 glasses
  • Elevate the legs or hands above heart level.
  • Lie on the left side 2 to 3 times daily for 15 minutes to increase lymph absorption.
  • Soak in a tub, hand, or foot bath with Epsom salts. Dissolve 1 part salts in 2 parts
    boiling water, and add this solution to the tub.
  • Increase cardiovascular activity to encourage speedier lymph absorption.
  • Do pelvic tilts to reduce the weight of the uterus on the blood vessels in the pelvis and abdomen. Rocking movements  promote blood circulation
  • Soak in a large tub or pool to reduce swelling for up to 48 hours because the hydrostatic pressure of the water reduces edema and increases diuresis.
  • Wear supportive hosiery.

Deep abdominal breathing enhances lymphatic drainage of the thoracic, abdominal, and pelvic organs and extremities by influencing intraabdominal and intrathoracic pressure. During pregnancy, deep abdominal lymphatic drainage treatment is contraindicated but is substituted with contact breathing to affect the lumbar lymph trunks with a stretch and pull stimulation
The Lymphatic massage routine is sufficient to address normal swelling during pregnancy
but should not be construed as the complex manual lymphatic drainage technique, such as the Vodder technique.


Compiled using information from the following sources: Prenatal Massage by Elaine Stillerman. Part One. Pregnancy Massage