In a recent study, pregnant women diagnosed with major depression received massage therapy from their significant others twice a week for 12 weeks. Analysis showed these women not only had reduced depression at the end of the 12 weeks, but they also had lower levels of depression and cortisol in the postpartum period.

The infants of the women who received massage, in comparison to a similar control group, were less likely to be born prematurely or at a low birth weight. These babies had lower cortisol levels and performed better on habituation, orientation and motor scales as well.
The study, “Pregnancy massage reduces prematurity, low birthweight and postpartum depression,” involved depressed women between 16 and 20 weeks gestation, recruited from two ultrasound clinics. The average age of the women was 26.2 years.

Subjects were assessed for depression and then randomly assigned to the massage group or the standard treatment control group. There were 88 subjects in the massage group and 61 in the control group.

Women in the massage group received two moderate-pressure massages per week for 12 weeks. Each subject’s significant other administered the massages. Significant others were taught the massage by a massage therapist and were also given a DVD for at-home coaching on the massage protocol.

The massage intervention began for each woman when she reached 20 weeks gestation and continued until she reached 32 weeks gestation. Sessions began with the mother in a side-lying position, with pillows positioned behind her back and between her legs for support. The significant other was instructed to provide 10 minutes of moderate-pressure massage on one side and then switch the mother to her other side for the remaining 10 minutes of massage.

Evaluations were taken before the start of the 12-week study, after the last massage and after the babies were born. Results of the research reveal that mothers in the massage group had a greater decrease in depression scores. These subjects also showed lower levels of back pain, while those in the control group showed increased back pain.

As for the infants, those born of mothers in the massage group tended to be of a greater gestational age, with decreased incidence of low birth weight and a lower rate of prematurity as well.

Babies of the massaged mothers also received higher scores on the Brazelton Neonatal Behavior Assessment Scales, and they had lower cortisol levels, compared to the babies born of the control group mothers.
Mothers in the massage group also showed lower postpartum depression scores and lower cortisol levels than mothers in the control group.

“The massage therapy group women versus the control group women not only had reduced depression by the end of the therapy period, but they also had reduced depression and cortisol levels during the postpartum period,” state the study’s authors. “Their newborns were also less likely to be born prematurely and low birthweight, and they had lower cortisol levels and performed better on the Brazelton Neonatal Behavioral Assessment habituation, orientation, motor and depression scales.”

Authors: Tiffany Field, Miguel Diego, Maria Hernandez-Rief, Osvelia Deeds and Barbara Figueiredo.

Sources: Touch Research Institutes, University of Miami School of Medicine; Fielding Graduate University; University of Alabama; and University of Portugal. Originally published in Infant Behavior and Development (2009).