A New Jersey massage therapist is working to help women of color have healthier pregnancies and babies.

Shanda Barker, LMT, who is also a doula, has a passion for helping mothers and mothers-to-be.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on the fact that statistically, the health care system produces poorer results for people of color than it does for their white counterparts. This holds true when looking at pregnant women as well. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control:

  • Black women are 3.3 times more likely than white women to die from a pregnancy-related cause.
  • 700 deaths related to pregnancy occur each year, out of 3.8 million births. However, 42.8 Black women die for every 100,000 live births, while 13 white women die for every 100,000 live births.

Through prenatal massage therapy, as well as education in pre- and postnatal care and infant massage, Barker plans to aid women, especially women of color, in having healthier pregnancies and babies, and better post-pregnancy wellness.

“My program is for all women, but especially African-American women due to … the mortality rate,” she told MASSAGE Magazine.

The Power of Healthy Touch

Barker became interested in a massage therapy career after an incident, when she was a special education teacher, in which the power of healthy touch became clear to her. One day a physical therapist in the classroom was doing joint compression with some of the children, and Barker tried it on one autistic student who rarely responded in class.

“I decided to do a hand joint compression on him, and he actually looked at me and was focused,” she said. Joint compression provides proprioceptive input to the muscles, joints and bones, to effect calm.

That success prompted her to seek out training in massage therapy; she graduated from ASHA School of Massage and began massaging clients as a side job. Later, working as a disability coordinator at Head Start, “I got burned out,” Barker said. “And I decided: I might as well do what I really love—and I started doing massages full-time.”

Barker went on to open her business, Heavenly Hands Mobile Spa, which offers pregnancy massage as well as other modalities; she also trained to become a doula. (Her practice closed for a while in 2020 due to coronavirus restrictions, but is now open one day a week, with infection-control measures in place.)

Shanda Barker promoting prenatal massage at a health fair. Photos courtesy of Shanda Barker.

Benefits of Pregnancy Massage

According to the American Pregnancy Association, receiving massage therapy during pregnancy offers many benefits, including reduced back and joint pain, fewer muscle aches and headaches, stress and tension relief, reduced edema and better sleep.

Prenatal massage “helped alleviate the natural pains of carrying for eight months,” said Melissa, one of Barker’s clients. Another client, Gladis, says massage at 37 weeks helped ease her severe sciatica pain.

Besides enjoying the benefits of Barker’s massage therapy, many who see her for prenatal massage also take advantage of her doula and postpartum massage services. It’s her complete knowledge and understanding of the prenatal, birthing and post-birth process that she wishes to impart to clients whose sessions will take place through her new project at free or reduced rates.

Inspirations & Mentors

Barker’s interest in pregnancy massage began with her grasping what her mother, who gave birth to Barker at age 15, faced while pregnant and then while raising a child on her own. “As a teenage mother, my mom lacked experience and knowledge of childbirth and taking care of an infant,” Barker explains. “Still, she had a village that supported her through the pregnancy and her motherhood journey.”

Barker also took some advice from a coworker who specialized in pregnancy massage, and attended Claire Marie Miller’s Nurturing the Mother seminar. She loved the work, became certified, and started serving pregnant women with her massage skills. She also got certified as a Nurturing the Mother therapist, and began teaching Miller’s techniques. (At the time this article was posted, Miller’s live seminars had been canceled, but classes were available online and as home study.)

“Pregnancy massage provides an important physical and emotional transformation for women by allowing them to connect to their bodies on a deeper level. These experiences can be empowering for the pregnant woman,” Miller told MASSAGE Magazine. “Shanda is rising to the need to offer her services as a doula, a pregnancy massage therapist and an educator. By doing this she is strengthening her community and her sisters.”

Barker also benefited from the advice and mentorship of two other colleagues in the industry: Diane Trieste and Maggy Dunphy, who had started a program to help spas and related businesses reopen safely during the COVID-19 pandemic: The S.O.S. Spa Project.

“Our goal is to widen her net and connect her with those that can help her to provide services in collaboration with the public, other health care professionals, even non-profit organizations,” Trieste told MASSAGE Magazine. “We truly believe the time is now to represent hope by trying to touch one person/woman of color at a time, especially during our current global crisis.”

Progress So Far

Barker has outlined the services and education she aims to provide to women, but does not yet have a place to perform these free or low-cost massage services and education. She is currently negotiating with a local hospital to be able to do it on their premises; as of the time this article posted, those plans weren’t finalized.

Once the program is up and running, “we’re going to do workshops, teach [women] the benefits of massage, self-care for themselves and their babies, [and] teach them how to do infant massages as well,” Barker said. “Women that can’t get pregnant, they’re going to also get massaging [for] fertility. And women that have menopause issues—we’re going to be doing that as well. So it’s basically a wellness center for women.”

Funding is also necessary in order to provide the services free or at a reduced price for the clients. Barker has set up a gofundme page, Mommies Helping Mommies, with a goal of raising $30,000 for her program.

Full Speed Ahead

Barker, who is preparing to go to school to become a midwife, hopes to have her program up and running completely by March or April of this year.

“I really want to work within the community,” she said, “because that’s [where] my heart is.”

About the Author

Allison M. Payne is a freelance writer and editor based in central Florida. Her articles for MASSAGE Magazine include “Massage Therapists Take Action to Support Cultural Competence” and “COVID-19 Long-Haulers Puzzle Health Experts.”