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The Truth About Acupuncture During Birth

More women are getting acupuncture and acupressure during birth. But is it safe?

Just like with yoga, tai chi, meditation, and countless other ancient Eastern wellness practices, we Americans are finally catching on to the health benefits of acupuncture. This traditional Chinese therapy, which involves inserting hair-thin needles into specific points throughout the body to boost energy, can ease chronic pain, migraines, anxiety, depression, digestive troubles, and other woes. And there’s actually a good shake of research to prove it.

It’s no wonder, then, that more women are trying acupuncture during pregnancy, when they’re often achy, nauseous, and stressed. A small but growing number of moms-to-be are also receiving it during childbirth, something the Chinese have done for millennia. Acupuncture, along with acupressure, which targets the same points but doesn’t use needles, has been shown to induce labor, reduce pain, and help push that baby out.

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“So far, there is no evidence of any harms in using acupuncture for healthy, low-risk pregnant women,” says Rebecca Dekker, Ph.D., a registered nurse and founder of Evidence Based Birth. “Some evidence suggests that acupuncture at the end of pregnancy might help the cervix ripen and become ready to go into labor. Furthermore, a growing body of evidence shows that acupuncture and acupressure can be effectively used to lower pain during labor.”

While these practices may lessen pain, they obviously won’t zap it altogether. “Remember, she’s still having a baby,” says Deb Davies, LaC, a licensed acupuncturist, birth doula, and owner of PUSH San Diego. “Acupuncture is not an epidural or magic pill, but it definitely helps.”

This is largely because acupuncture eases anxiety. “If the mom is freaked out, scared, or nervous, she’ll be clenching her jaw and also clenching down there,” Davies explains. “The more relaxed she is, the more she’ll trust her body, and the more quickly the baby can move through her.” It makes sense, then, that acupuncture and acupressure, as well as a Chinese massage, can shorten the duration of labor.

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Since some hospitals don’t allow acupuncture needles, Davies often uses these other two therapies during labor. “It’s also very powerful just using the pressure points,” Davies says. “She’ll usually focus on just a few particular pressure points, such as a spot on the right hand that’s a master point for pain in the body and also targets cervical dilation. And if a woman is just starting to push and her contractions are very weak, she’ll do a massage technique to give her body enough energy to strengthen her contractions and push out the baby.”

For example, during a birth Davies assisted with recently, the nurse said the woman’s contractions weren’t strong enough so she would need Pitocin, a drug that induces labor. Davies did her massage technique and the woman delivered the baby within the next 10 contractions, no Pitocin needed.

The baby can also benefit from acupuncture, acupressure, and Chinese massage. Davies shares another story of a healthy 25-year-old who was dilated 8 centimeters when her baby’s heart rate dropped. “Her doctors started talking C-section immediately, so I began pressing on specific points on the woman’s hands and feet, and the baby’s heart rate sped up,” she says. “It’s so cool to see these changes happening on the monitor. In some cases, just a bit of acupuncture or acupressure can shift a potential C-section to a natural birth.”

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Normally, acupuncturists begin working with women in the weeks or even months leading up to labor to help them prepare. “Many of our clients have had acupuncture during their pregnancy or sometime prior and then called in the acupuncturist during their hospital stay,” says Cindy Walp, director of the Birth Center at North Valley Hospital in Whitefish, Montana, one of the few hospitals in the U.S. to have licensed acupuncturists on staff to assist with childbirth. “Acupuncture can be most effective when an acupuncturist has gotten to know a client well and learned her comorbidities, stresses in life, etc. I truly believe women who are invested in alternative medicine practices obtain the most benefit from modalities such as acupuncture.”

Still, while it may not be the ideal situation, these therapies can also aid newbies right before or during labor. “A lot of women call me for the first time because they’re going to be induced the next day and don’t want to be,” Davies says. “They’ll come into my clinic and I’ll do a treatment to help get their body ready — by easing anxiety, softening the cervix, increasing dilation.”

Depending on where you live, it may be tough to find a licensed acupuncturist who works on women in labor or a hospital that has one on staff. But even if your access is limited, new moms are not out of luck. You and your partner can both learn a few acupressure techniques. “Unlike acupuncture, which can only be administered by licensed acupuncturists, anybody can be trained to use acupressure during labor for pain relief,” Dekker says.

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Davies likes to teach parents-to-be about the pressure points on the hands and feet. “At a home birth, where it’s usually me, the father and the woman’s mother, I’ll teach all of them these points,” she says. “A woman can even help herself during labor by massaging the spot on her hand, especially if she does not want to be induced. Every contraction, she squeezes.”

Given acupuncture and acupressure’s nearly-nonexistent risks and many perks for women near or in labor, Davies is on a mission to educate soon-to-be moms and dads. “I want people to realize they have options,” she says. “I see a tremendous value for acupuncture.”

Walp agrees: “Why more hospitals don’t offer acupuncture, I don’t know,” she says. “It helps the body do what it knows to do. It takes away those blocks we put in place when experiencing pain or stress. I even had a patient once who had a lot of nausea and pain during her first C-section. Then with her second C-section, she used only acupuncture for pain control.”