Complementary therapies for labour

Many women choose to use complementary therapies such as reflexology,acupuncture, hypnosis and aromatherapy to help them in labour. For some women these therapies are very useful, and they need no other form of pain relief. For other women these therapies work best alongside mainstream medical forms of pain relief.

Your own midwife, or another midwife in her team or at your hospital, might be trained as an aromatherapist, reflexologist, hypnotherapist or acupuncturist. If you are interested in using complementary therapies during labour, ask whether your midwife is qualified to provide any of these therapies or whether she can recommend someone to you. It is very important that whoever you go to for advice is properly qualified and affiliated to one of the recognised bodies that monitor the delivery of complementary therapies. For more information, contact the Institute of Complementary Medicine.


Aromatherapy oils can be incorporated into massage to help you relax. However, the essential oils used by aromatherapists are very powerful and you shouldn’t select any oil for labour (or to use in pregnancy) without having consulted an aromatherapist first.


This is an ancient therapy, originating in China. Acupuncturists undergo a long and rigorous training before qualifying. Fine needles are used to stimulate the energy channels of the body and the release of natural painkillers or endorphins. Acupressure, which involves using pressure on key points of the body, rather than needles, may be more acceptable to women who are wary of needles.

If you are interested in using acupuncture during your labour, you will probably have to make private arrangements with a therapist to attend you at home or come into hospital with you.


Hypnosis for birth teaches women simple but powerful techniques to induce feelings of relaxation and peace during labour and birth. This can be used to release any fears and anxieties that naturally affect first-time mums or to reassure those who have experienced previous traumatic labours and deliveries. The emphasis is very much on the woman staying in control of her own mind and body rather than feeling helpless and disempowered. The theory behind it is quite simple: that fear leads to tension and that tension leads to pain, as Maggie Howell, clinical hypnotherapist, explains. “If you go into the birth feeling and being frightened, your system will respond accordingly. This fear will lead to increased adrenalin in your body, which leads to increased tension in your muscles and your cervix, with fewer ‘contraction’ hormones being produced, so that your uterus is having to work much harder to flex and tighten. This subsequently makes contractions far more painful, in the same way that if you tense up when you are in pain, the pain becomes far greater.

Many people assume that a hypnotised person will be in a daze and unable to communicate sensibly with anyone around them. However, this is not the case, as Maggie stresses. “Hypnosis is a natural state, which we all experience many times a day. It is when your conscious (analytical, reasoning) mind takes a step back and your subconscious (feelings, memories, emotions) comes more to the forefront. Once your mind relaxes, you become more receptive to positive suggestions and affirmations and, since your mind cannot distinguish between imagination and reality, the more positive suggestions you give yourself, the more real they become.

You will have to practise the techniques during your pregnancy to be able to use them effectively during labour.

Hypnosis for labour can be used effectively in all settings – homebirths, waterbirths, hospital births, etc. And the techniques can be used to help calm and relax you whenever a stressful situation arises, so it’s of long-term benefit!


You might find that some massage is helpful for easing the pain. Most women feel their contractions in the lower part of their back. Ask your supporter to:

  • Use the heel of his hand to press firmly on the bottom of your spine, massaging in small circles
  • Use his thumbs to massage on either side of your spine
  • Massage your shoulders, taking care to keep the movement slow and firm. This helps keep your breathing relaxed
  • Use long stroking massage down your spine, first with one hand and then the other, to help you relax
  • Alternatively, get hold of a wooden massage roller, or put a couple of tennis balls in a sock, and massage your lower back with that


This therapy is related to acupuncture and involves massaging various areas or zones of the feet in order to stimulate channels of energy which connect with other parts of the body. Reflexology can be used during labour to increase the strength of contractions, to calm down contractions if they are very strong, or to regulate them if the muscles of the womb are not working harmoniously. It needs to be carried out by a trained therapist.


  • Complementary therapies should be treated with respect. Their effect on the body can be just as powerful as that of strong medicated drugs
  • It is essential that the person practising the therapy is properly qualified
  • It is unlikely that complementary therapies will be on offer at your hospital, although some do offer some, such as aromatherapy or reflexology. If you want to use them, you will usually need to find your own therapist

There is very little research as yet into the safety or effectiveness of complementary therapies. It could be argued, however, that such therapies have been in use for thousands of years and have survived precisely because of their beneficial effects.

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