Depression-during-pregnancyApproximately 13 percent of women who are pregnant will experience depression.

This is according to the Office on Women’s Health, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Risk factors include personal and/or family history of depression, lack of support, anxiety or negative feelings about the pregnancy, among others.

The Office on Women’s Health also reports that depression during pregnancy increases the risk of depression after delivery. More importantly, a report published in the American Journal of Psychiatry indicates that untreated depression during pregnancy could lead to obstetrical complications. But the good news is some studies have shown that complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies, such as massage, may offer some benefits.

Studies on Pregnancy Massage

A study in 2004 was conducted in which 34 pregnant women with depression were randomly assigned to one of three groups: a massage therapy group, progressive muscle relaxation group or a control group receiving standard prenatal care.

During the 16-week trial, the massage group received two 20-minute massages, and reported lower anxiety levels, a less depressed mood and reduced leg and back pain at the conclusion of the study, than did the other groups.  

A 2014 review examined seven different CAM therapies, including massage, to determine their efficacy in managing perinatal depression. They found that some women choose to halt medication for depressive disorders while pregnant, opting for complementary therapies instead.

After examining several monotherapy studies on the effects of massage on pregnant women and their babies, the review’s authors found this modality reduced antenatal depression, decreased cortisol levels and increased serotonin and dopamine levels.

Based on a growing body of literature and safety data, these researchers determined that weekly, 20-minute massage sessions “…may be a reasonable consideration for perinatal women with mild depression symptomatology.”

A Massage Therapist’s Perspective

Julie Robbins, owner of Westville Massage in New Haven, Connecticut, said that women with pregnancy-related affective disorders display symptoms including anxiety and depression. “This creates stress in the body, particularly in the sympathetic autonomic nervous system,” Robbins says. “The blood supply may drop to 65 percent in the baby and has a huge direct effect on the fetus. Reduced oxygen results in low birth weight and prematurity.”

Research has demonstrated reduced oxygen in the womb and psychological stress in the mother are often indicators of low birth weight.

Robbins does not utilize one specific type of massage for her pregnant clients who are depressed; rather, she tailors the session to each individual. “My goal is to remove her pain and help her relax. I ask myself what can I do in a concrete way to help her,” she says. “I also use techniques we know help the nervous system, such as stroking, rocking and acupressure on the feet.”

Although one massage session might offer some relief, Robbins recommends pregnant women with a diagnosed affective disorder experience massage on a regular basis, at least every two weeks. The client should speak to her physician or obstetrician about any experienced depression or anxiety prior to scheduling massage.

Pregnancy Wellness Plan

Since massage may help manage stress, it can be a useful part of an overall wellness program during pregnancy. Overall, frequency of massage is recommended between once a week and once every two weeks. Massage therapists should encourage expectant mothers to communicate about stress levels and depression with their doctors.