After two miscarriages, Siobhan Lynch's pregnancy was progressing well, when, seven months along, her father passed suddenly. She went on to deliver a healthy baby daughter, but, at two weeks postpartum, was struggling. "I had been struggling with breastfeeding, battling the onslaught of hormones and emotions, what felt like a barrage of visitors and my husband had just gone back to work," she tells Romper by email. Her sister Maeve visited at that time and offered to give her a massage. "Our mom took the baby and we went into my room. At almost the first touch, the wave of emotions hit me so hard I started bawling," Lynch recalls. "I had been barely holding it together emotionally, because I thought what I needed was to be stoic, and strong for my new little family. The touch relaxed my body to the point I could no longer contain my emotions. And the comfort. The comfort of having someone do something for just me."
For Lynch, the massage, in the hands of a non-professional, changed everything. "I felt happy after the massage for the first time in a long time. I started to let my guard down and was really able to bond with my daughter."
For many pregnant women, a prenatal massage is the first and last piece of bodywork they experience — a fussy “treat”; cucumber water and spa therapy. After birth, many first-time mothers report feeling “touched out” from holding an infant and breastfeeding around the clock, but experts say that one of the best ways for a new mother to heal is actually to be physically touched.
Bodywork — however you define it — is rarely a part of the postpartum recovery unless a mother suffers an injury. Rebecca Peters-Campbell, a mother of two in Maine, says that two pregnancies were "the equivalent of putting my body through a blender." She had physical therapy to heal her diastasis recti — the abdominal separation many women experience — which quickly improved, but remembers, "just as importantly, the physical therapist helped me emotionally feel like having my body turn to sh*t because of childbirth wasn't a permanent inevitability."
Likewise, for Nicole Tankovich, a young mother from Ohio, injury was a reason to seek out care. She had chiropractic work during and after her pregnancy, and tells Romper that “it helped me feel more confident as a new mother and reminded me to put myself in the priority mix at home.”
But what piece of that care work has to do with physical rehabilitation, and what piece of it has to do with touch in and of itself? Is it time to consider the importance of socio-emotional touch in the postpartum recovery?
Purposeful and reassuring touch from a variety of bodywork professionals, combined with physical and emotional support at home, can improve a woman’s recovery, according to a wealth of research. But if you felt marooned during the postpartum period, you aren’t alone. The role of touch in helping mothers adjust to physical, emotional, and spiritual changes is nonexistent in the mainstream model of U.S. postpartum care, though it exists in other cultures.
I needed a lot of extra cuddles from my husband to help me feel supported as a new mom.
Imagine a future in which your partner is trained to provide massage to mother and baby — it sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? Mothers sometimes learn how to perform infant massage, either in hospital or an infant-care class taken independently (we consider touch "essential" to newborn health), but a world in which labor wards have “touch rooms” for couples aimed at supporting the maternal recovery might be closer than you think.
Perhaps the proliferation of alternative therapies catering to new moms suggests a universal need for touch in the postpartum period.
"I'm not usually a person that requires a lot of touch or affection to feel loved, but in the initial weeks postpartum I felt really vulnerable, sore, exhausted and like I didn't quite know myself in this new role yet," Ashley Bradley, a mother from Orange County, CA, tells Romper. "I needed a lot of extra cuddles from my husband to help me feel supported as a new mom."
Many of the women Romper spoke to called out therapies like acupuncture and chiropractic work as being integral to their recovery, meanwhile both therapies have been found in some studies to be no more effective than a placebo. Put another way, regardless of the modality, these therapies seem to help — these women aren't wrong about feeling better. So what is going on?
A study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetric Gyneacology found that of 84 depressed pregnant women, those who were given massage had better fetal outcomes (including lower incidence of premature birth), lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and neurotransmitter norepinephrine in the mother, and higher levels of reward substances serotonin and dopamine. Massage therapy likely stimulates the limbic system (a network of nerves governing emotion in the brain) through a sequence of events, concluded a study published in the Journal of Obstetric Gyneacology, which noted that China, where massage is a routine part of maternal care, has a 1 percent rate of premature birth, against the U.S.’s 14 percent.
We have somewhat cottoned onto the idea of prenatal care — those prenatal massages are cropping up in baby shower baskets — but few women look beyond birth for physical help.
"The more we learn about touch, the more we realize just how central it is in all aspects of our lives — cognitive, emotional, developmental, behavioral — from womb into old age," the New Yorker's Maria Konnikova wrote in a review of the literature on touch. "It’s no surprise that a single touch can affect us in multiple, powerful, ways."
Licensed massage therapist Gail Jean Padilla, of Santa Barbara, California, says women are eager to have a massage around seven months gestation on. “A pregnant woman might feel a lack of ownership of her body because of all the new changes she is going through,” she explains to Romper. “So she will look to have a massage to feel more grounded in her new body. It’s a moment for her to feel centered in herself and not have the focus only on the baby.”
But the postpartum period is an opportunity for healing. “Different emotions lie in certain parts of the body, so I know that pain in a certain area relates to particular emotional details,” she says, explaining that she sees her work as helping a person’s psychological recovery.
Similarly, while doulas are typically associated with birthing, their role postpartum is important, says Christine Sheet Nutile, a doula near Chicago. Nutile watches for how the new mother breastfeeds and holds her body. She says that most new mothers hunch over the baby while nursing. “A doula’s job is to touch her shoulders to relax her and gently lean her back. The mother’s shoulders need to be loose and relaxed. If you reduce muscular pressure, especially as you’ll be feeding the baby about 12 times a day, you reduce the mother’s stress.” She says physical touch not only relieves physical pain, but is emotionally supportive — a claim backed up by science cited in Psychology Today.
Whenever the nurses asked if I wanted another warmed blanket, I just kept saying yes. It felt good to be feel something soft and warm. It was reassuring, like a hug.
To illustrate the positive power of touch, Tankovich, who had chiropractic work done during pregnancy, recalls attentive nurses offering her warm blankets during her recovery from labor. “Whenever the nurses asked if I wanted another warmed blanket, I just kept saying yes. It felt good to be feel something soft and warm. It was reassuring, like a hug. I just loved having warm blankets touching me,” she says. Nicole realized that a warm blanket could offer some of the same benefits of other forms of therapeutic touch.
One big reason that women feel physically isolated after baby? The cost. Alternative therapies like massage, acupuncture, and postpartum doula services are not typically covered by insurance. A massage can set you back anywhere from $50 to $200 an hour for a skilled therapist, while acupuncture sessions start at $50 and go up from there. Postpartum doulas start at around $50 per hour in New York City. And when we view therapy as a treat rather than a necessity, we are unlikely to make the investment.
So what does it look like when physical caregiving is a part of a mother’s recovery? In Mexico, the “cuarentena” is 40 days of pampering for new mothers, where nourishing food is brought bedside, and all chores are looked after. Immigrants who bring the practice to the U.S. have lower rates of infant mortality than non-Hispanic white women, per PBS. In the Netherlands, new mothers receive 49 hours of postpartum care from specialized nurses known as kraamverzorgende. South Korea and China both have traditions of postpartum care, and in fact the Korean “new mother hotels” or joriwon have begun to crop up in the U.S.
These private centers, like the Dear Reina Maternity Care Center in Pangyo, about 20 minutes from Seoul, exist to take care of just the mother and her baby/babies immediately after discharge from the hospital for the first two weeks that might otherwise be spent at home. As explained by a representative of Dear Reina, “Except for the child’s father, we do not allow visitors in the mother’s room. The infant stays in a baby nursery except to be breastfed by its mother, unless the mother wants to spend more time with the baby. She can request the baby in her room or with her at a yoga or stretching class. It is entirely up to the mother. It is two weeks centered around whatever the mother wants and needs.”
There are a variety of services available such as body massage, yoga, chef-prepared meals, educational talks about breastfeeding and baby care, doctor checkups for the mother and infant, 24/7 nurses for the infants, and lactation consultants and other services. A two-week stay can start at about $3,500 and quickly go higher depending on the desirability of the center, the number of services requested, and whether or not celebrities have stayed there. Status-conscious new mothers try to get into the “best” joriwon they can afford. Local groups of friends/communities of new mothers and their babies develop from the mothers who stayed in the joriwon together because they leave and return to their homes together. There’s even two joriwon in Los Angeles that cater to the local Korean-American community.
Chinese and Korean cultures believe there is a link between body and mind, which explains the prevalence of bodywork. But there is abundant evidence for the positive effects of touch in scientific literature. The link between touch and production of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone,” has been well-documented. A 2007 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that the higher a mom's oxytocin levels in the first trimester of pregnancy, the more likely she was to engage in bonding behaviors such as singing to or bathing her baby.”
The picture of a mom who is “touched out” and doesn’t want to be intimate with her husband perhaps misunderstands what a new mother’s needs are. Through nursing her child, she is typically producing ample amounts of oxytocin and therefore “has had her needs met,” as psychotherapist Esther Perel recently told a panel hosted by Plum Organics and attended by Romper. “You say there is nothing more you can give at the end of the day with your baby," she has said, according to The Guardian, "but perhaps, sensually and emotionally, there is nothing more that you need!" The new mother may not need or want sexual intimacy with her partner, but could still benefit from non-sexual touch. That is, a mother who has poured her energy into bonding with her baby can still need, and benefit from, physical attention.
It would not have occurred to me to get a massage to make me feel better!
"No one gave me any physical touching (e.g., shoulder rub), other than [my husband]. We didn't do that kind of thing!" recalls Ros M., a mother of three grown children in Australia, of the postpartum period in an email conversation with Romper. In her entire life, she has had just two massages and two facials, but, she says, "I loved the physical contact with my babies and of course breastfed each one for nine months."
The bigger concern at the time was being physically capable of performing housework. "It would not have occurred to me to get a massage to make me feel better!!!!! I do recall thinking I would never be able to hang the washing again, after 10 days in hospital after [an] emergency caesarian!" says Ros.
Many private centers have cropped up across the country to service broader needs like cooking, conversation, and other forms of touch, like hip-binding.
Pulling on cross-cultural influences, like the Mexican and Chinese styles of postpartum rest, Women’s True Healing in Redondo Beach, CA, is a holistic healing center dedicated to female reproductive wellness, owned by Marcia Lopez. Lopez says that a key focus of their work is a four to six-week rest period, supporting women with services like nourishing traditional foods, massage, vaginal steaming, hip binding, and the opportunity to share her birth story. Physiologically the massage, vaginal steaming, and hip binding allows the woman’s uterus to return to its optimal position and can address labor injuries or birth traumas, she says. Emotionally, the center offers rituals and ceremonies to close this phase of rest and allow the mother to ease her transition into the world with a new baby.
It is this opportunity to be touched, heard, and validated that is both important and missing in much of American culture, Lopez says. “This period of rest postpartum is a vital part of societal wellness and the cornerstone on which a family and community are built.” Unfortunately, she says, “it is largely ignored in industrial civilizations.”
Chiropractor Dr. William Zev Rozier sees his work with new mothers as addressing the nervous system. “With each touch and contact that I make, it sends signals to the brain,” he tells Romper. Rozier owns Spinal Freedom in New York City, which focuses on holistic chiropractic work, and explains, “the objective is to get the nervous system out of the fight-or-flight mode and into a more relaxed state where the nervous system feels safe. Once the nervous system is calm, the rest of the body’s systems fall into place.”
Regardless of the modality, it's a concept I hear repeated again and again.
Finally, there is an argument that therapeutic touch given to the mother is essentially a treatment for the entire family. “I teach that we are a microcosm of the macrocosm and that caring for the self is caring for the family,” Marisol Rascon, co-owner of Golden Sol in the Los Angeles area, tells me.
Rascon has helped a lot of mothers heal and feel more centered in the postpartum period by helping guide them through positions that increase blood flow and relieve tension.
Likewise, Deborah Papisca, president of the Oasi delle Mamme mother's group in Pesaro, Italy, opened a space for pre- and postpartum care when she saw a gulf in what was available. "Society just wants you to smile because you are a mother, and still maintain your home and work as if nothing happened,” she tells Romper. “There is no space for feeling any other way, and it is asking too much for women to bear this all on their own."
The difference, it seems, is between emotional and physical isolation, and a feeling of connectedness. For Mariden May, a mother of three from New Jersey, pre- and postnatal yoga reduced her stress, guided by her instructor. “Her touches were reassuring,” she recalls. “After doing yoga, I always felt more centered and less stressed.”
"Touch is rarely purely physical," Konnikova wrote in the New Yorker. "Field’s more recent work has shown that the brain is very good at distinguishing an emotional touch from a similar, but non-emotional, one."
Lynch says her best friend is currently pregnant with her second child, and she plans to gift her a massage when she delivers. "I am a HUGE supporter or massage before, during, and after pregnancy — or anytime really," she tells Romper, thinking back to her own experience. "I have tears in my eyes just remembering this."
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.