top partner massage* and touch tips for supporting birthing people during labor
By Yiska Obadia, doula, acupuncturist, massage therapist and childbirth educator
What kind of touch do birthing people want in labor? If this is a question you’ve ever asked yourself as a loving partner or spouse, here are a few tips from an experienced doula and massage therapist who’s helped many couples like you find their way during labor.
In some ways, the kind of touch birthing people want during birth is different and in many ways it’s similar to the kind of touch they appreciate when not in labor. Here’s what you should know.
Tip #1: During contractions birthing people tend to prefer a firm and consistent touch.
The partner’s aim during contractions is to provide an anchor in the same way a laboring person might be inclined to squeeze their partner’s hand or hang onto their shoulders.
A partner’s touch when steady during contractions can feel grounding, like there’s something to be counted on when the intensity of that contraction moves through their body. If a contraction is like a wave in the ocean, a partner’s firm touch can act like a surfboard, helping ride the power of their experience on something solid until the wave has passed.
Try squeezing their hips or pressing on their low back during contractions for greatest comfort.
Between contractions is when a laboring person is likely to appreciate what we think of as more typical of “massage”. These strokes will aim to help release any residual tension their body may be holding onto from the last contraction and settle into a restful and deeply relaxed state in between contractions.
Wherever you’re massaging, whether it’s hips or back or shoulders, keep these 3 additional tips in mind:
Tip #2: Slow your touch down.
Why? Because slow is the pace of relaxation (alternately, fast is the pace of excitation) and relaxation or calm isone of the main things you want to support, whether that’s by dimming the lights, playing relaxing music or using your touch. If you simply do whatever you are doing, but slow your tempo down, your partner will be even better able to relax and let go in your hands.
Tip #3: Don’t over-repeat a stroke.
As non-professionals, when people typically go to massage their partner’s shoulders for example, there’s a tendency to pick a spot and stay there, squeezing or rubbing over and over and over.
While the first few strokes may feel good, after a short while, our bodies either start to register that touch as nagging, or at best it no longer feels satisfying. Our nervous system is designed to avoid overstimulation and to pay greatest attention to novel sensation.
Instead, think in repetitions of three. Three or so, slow, full squeezes on the shoulders will give you more bang for your buck than twenty repetitions of the same stroke in the same spot. Try stroking down their back or arms after a few reps and then you can even come back to the shoulders for a few more squeezes after, when it will feel fresh and satisfying again.
Tip #4: Make sure to complete the touch you’re offering.
Oftentimes, people will massage their partner in one spot and not recognize how much better it feels to cover the whole area. Think of it like painting a wall. If you were painting a wall, you’d never just paint a quarter of the wall or stop just before reaching the ceiling. You wouldn’t leave a random strip of white peaking through your newly painted blue wall. It’s the same with massage. Complete the “wall.”
If you’re massaging your partner’s back, make sure to cover both sides. Reach your touch all the way down to the hips and all the way up to the shoulders. Don’t stop half way. Believe me, they’ll feel the difference of their partner paying enough attention to “paint” their body from “floor to ceiling.”
Finally, discuss this topic and consider practicing comforting touch and massage for birth with your partner and/or doula before labor. Even if you don’t practice, adding these tips into an already caring touch will make a big difference for your birth experience when the time comes.
*Disclaimer: We chose to use the word massage in the title as this is the term most people use and recognize when they think about comforting touch. We want to be clear that we are not referencing this term in the professional or therapeutic sense. We simply felt it was the best word to connote what we meant in common terms, despite “massage” only being able to be performed legally by a licensed professional.