Pretty much anything a pregnant woman does to or for herself she also does to and for her unborn child. Good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, whatever activity she participates in, whatever food she eats, how she acts, thinks and feels – all are transmitted in one way or another to the baby.

Stages of Development

From the moment of conception, cells are growing and dividing within the expectant mother’s body. Little by little, as the weeks and months progress, so too does this mass of cells begin to develop into a fully formed child.

Until the tenth week of pregnancy, the fetus has focused on developing all the organs, muscles and nerves, which are beginning to be operational. The heart has already been beating for more than a month. At eleven weeks, the fetus is about 1.5 inches long (35mm) and developed enough to start producing hormones. If the child is a boy, it will begin producing testosterone; a girl will begin to grow her ovaries, and both sexes will start to form genitalia. The nervous system is busy producing 250,000 neurons per minute, and the whole body is capable of feeling touch, except for the tongue, which the fetus can now stick out. By the twelfth week, the baby has almost all the parts he or she needs.

During the next four weeks the fetus will almost double in size. Many of the bodily functions are starting to operate. The pancreas is producing insulin, the kidneys are producing urine, the vocal chords are complete and capable of making sound. It is around this time that the baby may also start to suck his or her thumb. The rest of the time will be devoted to maturation and growth. In the following six months the baby will increase in size from 2.5 inches (6cm) in length to an average of 20 inches (51cm), and the weight will have increased from .07 ounces (20 grams) to an average of 6 to 9 pounds (2700-4000 grams).

Can the Unborn Be Affected By Trauma?

According to Robert Scaer, MD, PC, an expert on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and author of The Trauma Spectrum: Hidden Wounds and Human Resiliency, the most primary of the senses are functional during the first trimester of life and the fetus possesses some sort of sentience or primitive consciousness.

In cases of fetal or intrauterine trauma, such as in utero heart surgery, or some physical or emotional trauma experienced by the mother, he hypothesizes that the developing fetus will be affected, undergoing physiological and psychological changes resulting in PTSD.

Scaer cites a 1994 study that monitored fetal blood levels of cortisol (a hormone produced in times of stress) and endorphins. The study showed compelling evidence of increased levels of the hormones remained longer in the fetus than in a child or adult, persisting long after the traumatic event.

Therapeutic Massage – Good for the Unborn

Research conducted with both adults and children show that massage therapy reduces stress hormones, increases endorphin and serotonin levels, relaxes muscles and promotes a state of well-being. Massage also helps to improve blood and lymph circulation bringing oxygen and nutrients, resulting in better nourishment and greater viability to the unborn child.

If the mother is stressed, or experiences some sort of trauma, the unborn child has been shown to respond and react to the increase in cortisol (a stress hormone), the muscle tension and the emotional anxiety. The baby’s heart rate can double when the mother is frightened or upset. If this stress goes unresolved, or lasts an extended period of time, both the mother and child may experience long-lasting symptoms. Likewise, if massage is given to an expectant mother, she receives the benefits of relaxation and a balancing of emotions, and passes them on to her unborn child as cortisol and endorphin levels are brought into balance.

Between five and six months the fetus’ hearing functions are complete and, because sound is amplified by the amniotic fluid, any music played nearby will be easily heard by the baby. When music is played, research has shown the baby to react with movement of his or her arms and legs, a kind of in utero dance. Other studies have shown the fetus to enjoy music that mimics the mother’s heart rate (about 60 beats per minute), usually classics, like Mozart and Vivaldi – something to keep in mind during the massage session.

During the later months of pregnancy, when you can actually see and feel the movement of arms and legs, if the abdomen is touched and rubbed, the baby will feel it and respond.

Bonding with Massage

Another benefit of massage is that it helps both mother and father bond with the unborn child. As a massage therapist, you can instruct the parents in proper prenatal and infant massage. It not only helps in bonding with the baby, but also helps the parents feel more connected to each other during this special time.

At about twenty weeks, halfway through the pregnancy, the mother will usually start to feel some movement, referred to as “quickening.” It is a subtle feeling, just a kind of flutter. But, at twenty-six weeks, the baby will become very active, pushing his or her hands against the mother’s belly, stretching and flexing muscles while still having some room to move around in. Now is the time the parents can start to actually touch and play with the baby through abdominal massage. The baby will recognize individual voices and can distinguish between light and dark outside the womb.


Whether she is a long-term client or new to your practice, always do a new, specialized intake on a pregnant woman coming in for massage. You need to know how far along she is, if the pregnancy is high risk, the name of her obstetrician and if she is cleared for receiving massage.

Most textbooks advise against giving a massage to a woman who is in the first trimester of pregnancy. This is the time most vulnerable to miscarriage. This is somewhat controversial and will depend on your level of expertise and training. Today’s tests can reveal pregnancy quite early, but in the not too distant past it was not uncommon to be two or three months along and not know it.

A pregnancy may be considered high-risk for many reasons. It could be simply because of a woman’s age (over 35 or under 17), a physical condition (such as being extremely underweight or overweight, a high or low blood pressure condition or ectopic pregnancy), illness (such as diabetes, epilepsy, HIV or hepatitis), medications (like antidepressants, anticonvulsants or even certain pain relievers like aspirin, which can increase the likelihood of bleeding), or a history of miscarriages.

During a massage the pregnant woman should lay on her side bolstered with pillows or blankets for comfort and safety. Massage can also be administered in a seated position. She should never lay supine on the massage table, as it places undue pressure on inferior vena cava and cause what is known as “supine hypotensive syndrome,” which dangerously inhibits the flow of blood and oxygen to the fetus and reduces the flow of blood to the mother’s extremities.

Overall, massage during pregnancy has many benefits for both mother and child. This can be seen when, after several months of massage, the birth commences with the mother having fewer labor complications and the baby having fewer postnatal complications.

Recommended Study:

Aromatherapy: Mother and Baby
Pre- and Perinatal Massage
Teaching Prenatal Partner Massage

More Information:

Pregnancy: Massage Benefits and Precautions