The benefits of maternity reflexology
Pregnancy is a wonderful time in a women’s life. The joys are abundant but so is the pain and discomfort. The physical, emotional and mental changes can be hard on many women. Up to 75 per cent of expectant mothers are nauseous during their pregnancies, whether it is in the morning or evening. More than 50 per cent of them experience fluid retention in their hands or feet and most women suffer from fatigue, constipation and cramping. Since there is not much medication that can be taken at this precarious time of their lives, most will deal with the physical, emotional and mental changes by finding comfortable and natural solutions to alleviate these symptoms. Reflexology, an ancient form of healing, is one such solution and an emerging one in Australia.
No one knows that better than Lyndall Mollart, champion of maternity reflexology. A trained midwife with over 20 years’ experience and a qualified reflexologist with 10 years of research and work in the field, she was responsible for introducing a reflexology policy in her local maternity unit. “Reflexology is like having a full body massage on your feet,” she says. “Regular reflexology makes pregnant women feel better and they are happier to go through their pregnancy,” she explains.
Reflexology increases the health and wellbeing of women and provides a comforting and nurturing environment for both mother and baby. “Case studies have shown that women who have frequent sessions of reflexology throughout their pregnancies have beautiful births and their babies’ are more settled as they experience the benefits of reflexology, too. Babies’ breastfeed better. Even women who have had a caesarean section seem to recover quicker,” Lyndall says.
During the first three months of pregnancy, the foetus will produce a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). The mother’s body reacts and produces relaxin, an ovarian hormone that works to soften the pelvic muscles in preparation for birth. Such dramatic hormonal changes during pregnancy can be overwhelming, causing imbalances in physiological functions and changes in the emotional wellbeing of a woman. As Angela Young, a reflexologist from Western Australia, has aptly said, “I often give an example of a garden hose with water trickling out at one end. We see something is wrong with the flow and we need to find out if there is a kink in the hose and rectify it to allow water to flow freely and strongly again.” Reflexology clears these imbalances and “kinks” in vital energy channels, which become blocked due to stresses and hormonal changes.
A reflexology session involves the application of pressure using specific thumb and finger technique, stretching and movement on reflex points located in the feet, hands and ears. The most common area for treatment is the foot. This 5000-year-old therapy is sometimes called zonal therapy as the body is divided into zones with corresponding reflex points located in the hands and feet. By stimulating these points, a message is sent to the spine and the central nervous system and from there a signal is sent to the brain and other organs of the body. Thus, reflexology promotes relaxation, improves circulation, stimulates vital organs and encourages the natural healing process of the body, creating a harmonious working together of the mind, body and soul.
During a maternity reflexology treatment, gentle techniques are emphasised to nurture both mother and baby. Reflexologists adapt the pressure and may vary the length of each session or ask the woman to sit or lie down in a particular position depending on the stage of pregnancy.
Maternity reflexology is increasingly used by reflexologists and midwives through every stage of pregnancy, from preconception to pregnancy, labour, postnatal and baby reflex. According to maternity-reflexology.net, “Reflexology as a natural therapy complements the natural state of pregnancy.”
Maternity reflexology and fertility
Never thinking IVF would fail after having her first-born using the technology, Rachel* was shattered when she lost her second baby after eight transfers. “I wanted to rid my body of all the IVF drugs. I had a very active and demanding little boy to look after and had to get on top of my grief and not allow myself to be depressed. Two months after she died I did personal training, tried naturopathy and discovered reflexology,” says Rachel.
Rachel was a bit sceptical initially of the benefits of reflexology, and about having her feet rubbed. But in her reflexologist she found a caring and nurturing person who not only helped her deal with her loss and anger but prepared her mind and body for another IVF transfer seven months later. Rachel became pregnant in the first transfer. Unfortunately, she lost her baby again. “The complications I had were nothing to do with reflexology but an undiagnosed incompetent cervix that caused me to lose my third baby at five months,” confides Rachel.
Rachel continued seeing her reflexologist every two weeks initially, then once a month, and became pregnant for the fourth and final time using one of her last few embryos. At the time of writing this article, Rachel was 13 weeks pregnant and was continuing to see her reflexologist. “What reflexology did for me was calm me down and have me in a place where I felt relaxed, happy and much more able to deal with things.
“The problem with trying to be pregnant (especially using IVF) is the underlying anxiety of it not working, running out of time, everyone else having a baby and being so desperate to have your own. You are taking drugs and hormones that wind you up, the expense is immense and there is the indescribable rollercoaster of emotions you go through every time you try, wait and hope for a positive result while preparing yourself for a negative result,” she adds.
According to Lyndall, who has been teaching maternity reflexology for five years to midwives and reflexologists in Australia, New Zealand and Japan, “There is a growing surge of women turning to reflexology for preconception and fertility issues, especially for IVF.” Many women try natural therapies like reflexology first before turning to conventional treatments such as IVF. Women who have been undergoing conventional treatments and ingesting drugs and hormones without any success find that complementary therapies such as reflexology give them the break they need from their unhappiness.
One in six Australians couples is impacted by infertility and the number is growing. Infertility can affect both men and women. Today’s figures show couples are choosing to have babies at a later age. Statistics show that after the age of 35 a woman has a 10–15 per cent chance of getting pregnant and after the age of 45 conception is at 1 per cent. Sometimes, infertility is caused by immense stress and anxiety. Such stress can adversely affect physical and mental health. Complementary therapies such as reflexology take a holistic approach to treating both men and women when it comes to infertility. Reflexology aids in clearing hormonal imbalances, decreases stress levels, regulates menstrual cycles and helps in the production of healthy sperm and ova, thus creating a healthy and harmonious environment for the new soul.
Lyndall stresses that reflexology is aimed at making healthy choices in the life of the couple. “Reflexologists don’t just work on the feet but spend a lot of time talking to the couple about a healthy lifestyle,” she says. Reflexology is an immense support for couples on IVF, increasing their chances of pregnancy in the first cycle instead of going through many transfers, which can be exhausting both emotionally and financially.
“It’s so important to have a healthy start to a pregnancy so you have a happy, healthy baby, and that’s where reflexology is a great support,” concludes Angela Young.
Maternity reflexology and fluid retention (oedema)
Phoebe became a first-time mum to a baby girl at 40. But Phoebe faced her own share of challenges during pregnancy. As a result, her little girl was born five weeks early by emergency C Section. Phoebe had developed severe fluctuations in blood pressure as her pregnancy progressed, which was soon diagnosed as HELLP syndrome — a severe form of pre-eclampsia. In spite of her best efforts to keep fit during her pregnancy, Phoebe noticed visible swelling of her hands, feet and face. Pre-eclampsia can cause fluids to accumulate, resulting in swelling, and women may gain excess weight.
Having discovered reflexology to treat a sports injury, Phoebe went back to her reflexologist for six sessions for the severe oedema. “My feet would go down to a normal size a day after having reflexology and stay down for a few days,” she says.
Oedema is a common physiological symptom, especially during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy. Foot and ankle oedema occur due to the growing weight of the uterus pressing on the pelvic vein, causing an obstruction of blood flow. During pregnancy, the amount of fluid in a woman’s body almost doubles to support the increasing weight of the baby and to help the body expand to accommodate the baby’s growth. This contributes to swelling of hands, feet, legs, fingers and face. Sitting or standing for a long time can also put pressure on the veins, causing swelling. While oedema is not harmful, it can cause discomfort, feelings of heaviness and night cramps. Usually, oedema resolves after the birth of the baby, as the uterus returns to its pre-pregnancy size and the hormones are normalised.
Several methods have been used to control oedema, such as bed rest, diuretics and support stockings, but natural therapies such as reflexology have shown promising results in reducing and controlling maternity oedema.
According to a study conducted by Lyndall Mollart in 2003, a significant reduction in oedema symptoms was found in women who received reflexology treatments using both the lymphatic and the relaxing techniques. The lymphatic technique is similar to the body’s natural drainage system whereby fluid returns through the lymphatic capillaries and veins to the circulatory system. This technique targets the reflex points related to the lymphatic system. Relaxing techniques work on the reflex zones of chest, abdomen, spine, pelvis and head.
Both techniques showed a decrease in stress, tension, anxiety, pain, irritability and discomfort. The most apparent effect of reflexology reported in this study was the experience of profound relaxation, which is an integral element of reflexology.
Maternity reflexology and morning sickness
Diagnosed with hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), a severe form of morning sickness, 29-year-old Bianca Conroy was not able to keep anything down, including liquids. During the first five months of her pregnancy, she suffered from excessive nausea and vomiting. “A variety of smells, sights and even noises would trigger a violent vomiting attack,” says Bianca. “I tried everything imaginable, from dry crackers to ginger tea and anti-nausea tablets prescribed by my doctor, but nothing seemed to give me any relief,” she adds.
Bianca then turned to reflexology and found immediate relief. There was a great improvement in her energy levels and she has not vomited since her first session. She adds, “Reflexology has also strengthened my immune system and kidney function, which was significantly strained by my condition.”
About two-thirds of all pregnant women will experience morning sickness, especially in the first trimester of their pregnancies. However, one in five women endure morning sickness into their second trimester and a few unfortunate ones will suffer from nausea and vomiting throughout their pregnancies. The actual cause of morning sickness is still a mystery but has been attributed to fluctuations in blood pressure, high levels of hormones, altered metabolism of carbohydrates and dramatic physical and chemical changes that occur during pregnancy.
While changes in food and liquid intake can help in coping with morning sickness, the balancing and harmonising qualities of reflexology can support a woman’s ability to endure morning sickness by stimulating and balancing certain reflex points in the feet, hands and ears.
Maternity reflexology and labour
Pippa Liang, a clinical psychologist, had a healthy pregnancy but, due to a previous autoimmune condition, her doctor wanted her to be induced on her due date. As Pippa wanted to labour naturally, she approached her reflexologist, who worked on Pippa’s feet in an attempt to induce labour. “We scheduled two sessions, one a few days before I was due and another two days after,” she says. Fifteen hours later, Pippa was in labour. “The labour and birth went smoothly and quickly without any pain relief,” she says.
As with most pain relief methods, the effects of reflexology vary. A 1992 British study of 64 first-time mothers showed that reflexology during pregnancy reduced the need for additional pain relief during labour and resulted in quicker, problem-free births. It also seemed to help other symptoms such as heartburn and increased blood pressure.
Many women use reflexology to encourage labour, especially if they are overdue. It is only after the 37th week that it is safe to stimulate reflex points associated with the endocrine glands and the reproductive system in preparation for labour. Reflexology can be used at any stage of labour and its effects are felt as soon as two minutes into the treatment with its full effect setting in within 15 minutes. A labour reflexology session can last from 45 minutes to an hour and in hospitals that support such treatment, reflexology can continue into full labour. The pressures applied during reflexology to induce hormones have been known to speed up labour, regulate contractions and ease pain. Reflexology encourages the production of endorphins and encephalin, which bring on a sense of euphoria and help with pain relief.
Reflexology and miscarriage
Miscarriage occurs in about 15 to 20 per cent of all recognisable pregnancies and usually occurs in the 13th week. Chromosomal abnormalities in the foetus are the most common cause of early miscarriages. “Reflexology cannot and will not cause a viable foetus to be miscarried or delivered early,” emphasises Lyndall in her paper, Reflexology and The Pregnant Client. “If the mother and baby are not ready, nothing will happen,” she says. If a woman is anxious, reflexology will actually help her keep calm and maintain a healthy pregnancy. Reflexology is also beneficial for women who are dealing with miscarriage, as this natural therapy will decrease anxiety and stress, harmonise the mind and body and induce relaxation.
It’s important that pregnant women seek accredited reflexologists. A list of these is available at the Reflexology Association of Australia website, www.reflexology.org.au. A Reflexologist or midwife specialising in maternity reflexology will know which points to stimulate and the ones to avoid. In fact, practitioners choose to avoid treatment before the first 13 weeks of pregnancy as it is during this time that the risk of miscarriage is high.
Even though reflexology is safe during pregnancy there are instances when it is contraindicated, such as where there is a history of miscarriage, deep vein thrombosis, high blood pressure and pre–eclampsia, to name a few. Such medical conditions can all have serious implications and must have expert medical attention. A qualified reflexologist is trained to look for symptoms and will refer them to your GP or obstetrician. It is important to let your primary carer know when you are undergoing reflexology, a discipline that is fast gaining acceptance in Australia among women.
While it is wise to enjoy the benefits of reflexology with a trained therapist, maternity reflexology is also a great excuse to put your feet up, indulge yourself a little and relax. After all, pregnancy is a time when you can do just that.