Chinese Medicine for Pregnancy and Childbirth

A History

Oriental medicine is a non-invasive healing modality that facilitates the body’s natural ability to heal itself by restoring harmony and balance to the entire individual. Originating in China more than 3,000 years ago, the medicine is one of the most common medical systems in the world, used by one quarter of the world’s population. Although it has been practiced in the United States for more than 150 years , many Americans first heard of Eastern medicine in 1972 when New York Times columnist James Reston used acupuncture for pain relief from an emergency appendectomy during a trip to China .

Many of the side effects and shortcomings of modern Western medicine have come to public attention in the last 30 years. Through the use of Chinese Medicine , many of these shortcomings can be avoided. Compared to Western medicine, Chinese medicine intervenes early-when signs of imbalance occur, prior to significant physical damage to the body. 1 Oriental medicine addresses a broad range of conditions that Western medicine finds difficult to treat. Chinese medicine focuses on the well being of the entire person, not simply on physical complaints and symptoms. Its effects are gentle and free of the side effects associated with many pharmaceutical drugs used for the same conditions. Acupuncture and Oriental medicine have been identified as an effective system of healthcare by the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization 2 , and is becoming a serious alternative or complement to conventional pain management and medical treatment.

Over 2,000 acupuncture points on the human body connect with 14 major pathways, called meridians. Chinese medical practitioners believe these meridians conduct Qi , or energy, between the surface of the body and internal organs. Qi regulates spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical balance. When Qi flow is disrupted, through poor health habits or other circumstances, pain and/or disease can result.

Acupuncture stimulates the body, releases energy blocks, and reestablishes normal equilibrium. The procedure involves the insertion of hair-thin, disposable metal needles through the skin in points on the body’s meridians. Acupuncture needles are solid, usually made of stainless steel and are extremely flexible. The small diameter and contoured shape of the acupuncture needle allows it to be inserted easily and painlessly a few millimeters into the skin. Acupuncture needles may also be stimulated with pressure, heat, friction or electromagnetic impulses to further activate a person’s Qi .

Studies have suggested that needles inserted at acupuncture points help release chemical neurotransmitters in the body, including endorphins. Endorphins are the body’s own powerful, natural painkillers which relieve pain and bring about a sense of well being.

Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine

Oriental medicine is ideal for use during pregnancy and childbirth as it offers a safe, easy to administer, inexpensive treatment for women. Because of the high potential for side effects from modern Western pharmaceuticals and the importance of quality pregnancy health care , many midwives and expectant mothers find it to be an effective alternative. With the avoidance of certain points, an acupuncturist can treat a woman during pregnancy without causing harm to the mother or baby. Because acupuncture can be deeply relaxing, the pregnant woman often falls asleep during a treatment and enjoys a much-needed rest. Massage during pregnancy is also used in Chinese medicine’s pregnancy health care to relax the woman and aid balance and flow of Qi in the body.

Stagnation of a woman’s Qi and blood typically slows the process of labor and can make it more painful during pregnancy. Acupuncture acts to move more Qi and blood through the body, thereby clearing stagnation and allowing for an easier and shorter labor. Other conditions that acupuncture may help during pregnancy include nausea, heartburn, headaches, constipation, hemorrhoids, and backache. Acupuncture is also effective for turning breech presentations, inducing labor, reducing the discomfort of contractions, and helping to expel the placenta.

While acupuncture can only manipulate Qi that is already available in the body, moxibustion, the burning of the dried herb mugwort on or over various acupuncture points of the body, is believed to add Qi to the body. This makes it the treatment of choice for breech presentation when used during the final month of pregnancy . Since moxibustion does not require needles, midwives can be easily trained in its application. Benefits of moxibustion in pregnancy health care include a decrease in the number of breech births and their complications, as well as potential reductions in the cesarean section rate. 3

Pain medication and epidurals often make a woman drowsy, limit her mobility, slow down labor, lower blood pressure, and depress normal fetal respiration. Acupuncture can be an effective alternative for relieving pain during labor without these side effects. Ear points are often used, allowing the woman more mobility. The effect usually occurs within 10-20 minutes. 4 As the woman becomes more calm and relaxed, she is better able to cope with contractions, though she can still feel them .

Some of the most common postpartum difficulties treatable by Chinese medicine include insomnia, fainting or dizziness, abdominal pain, depression, fatigue, constipation, incontinence, or insufficient lactation.

Chinese medicine is also useful for infants. In Chinese medicine , infants are not regarded as miniature adults. Rather, they are understood as immature both physically and functionally. Most of the common pediatric complaints are due to this immaturity. 5 Chinese medicine holds that because infant’s bodies are immature, and therefore inherently weak, they are susceptible to diseases which affect the Lungs, the Spleen (digestion) and the Liver*. This explains why infants often have colds, coughs, colic, vomiting, diarrhea, indigestion, and stomachaches.

Generally, needles are not used with infants and small children. Instead, a Japanese style of pediatric acupuncture ( shonishin ) which involves scrapers, combs, rollers, and brushes is used to stimulate various acupuncture points and channels at the surface of the child’s body. This technique stimulates and balances the child’s Qi without actually piercing the skin. Children typically love this treatment since it is soothing and comfortable. 6

Chinese Herbal Medicine

Chinese herbal medicine is one of the most sophisticated herbal medicine systems in the world. Typically, combinations of six to 20 ingredients are used in formulas correlated to each individual’s pattern of disharmony. The formulas are crafted together to act synergistically, each ingredient designed to accomplish a part of the overall process of restoring balance. The multi-ingredient formulas may be decocted and drunk as a strong tea, or taken as a tincture or pill several times per day. Chinese herbs can include ingredients from the animal and mineral kingdoms as well as the plant kingdom such as roots, barks, fruits, berries, twigs, stems, leaves and flowers.

There are formulas to treat many of the conditions that might arise during pregnancy , delivery and postpartum. For example, herbal medicine can be used to keep up a woman’s strength and vitality during labor. Chinese medicine also has several herbal formulas for vaginal washes or suppositories to tighten and strengthen the vagina postpartum. Because labor, the production of breast milk, and recovery take great amounts of Qi , Chinese herbs may be prescribed to boost or supplement the Qi and blood, helping the woman to recover.

Body massage

Body massage is a valuable adjunct to a midwifery or nursing practice. Regular body massage promotes stress relief, relaxation and maintenance of optimum health. ( Midwives should avoid administering abdominal and sacral body massage during pregnancy in the first trimester as they could risk stimulating specific acupuncture points contraindicated in pregnancy ). 7

Hormonal changes contribute to making pregnancy a very emotional time for women. The physical touch of body massage can be reassuring and calming, giving a pregnant woman the chance to relax and be nurtured. Body massage is particularly effective in the final trimester, especially for the hypertensive woman or one suffering from insomnia.

A number of types of body massage are encompassed within Chinese medicine including Tui Na, Shiatsu, Thai, and Jin Shin. Chinese body massage can influence the entire body, providing mild stimulation to the skin, organs and tissues. Conditions for which body massage during pregnancy may be helpful include nausea, vomiting, hemorrhoids, backache, edema, heartburn, anxiety, insomnia, headaches and tiredness.

Body massage aids circulation, excretion and digestion, and reduces pain perception for pregnant women. And massage during pregnancy increases the flow of blood and Qi to the limbs, which is helpful as the fetus grows larger making proper flow more difficult. It also helps to circulate body fluids in the skin, which can help women experiencing edema. Since body massage moves the Qi and blood, it keeps the woman’s skin supple and moist allowing it to stretch more easily. Therefore, massaging the perineum from 37 weeks of pregnancy onwards can help avoid the need for an episiotomy. 8

During labor body massage can reduce the discomfort of contractions and backache. A gentle body massage over the sacral area can be performed by the midwife and carried out in between contractions to minimize pain. Body massage may also be used to induce prolonged pregnancies, as well as help with the expulsion of the placenta. Postpartum, body massage can encourage lactation, relieve engorged breasts and constipation, alleviate depression, and promote general relaxation.

Infants also love and benefit from body massage . Due to their rapidly growing bodies, infants consume large amounts of Qi . Therefore, the organs most responsible for producing Qi are frequently in a deficient state. 9 The conditions that the deficiencies of these organs can produce are often effectively treated with pediatric body massage .

Chinese infant body massage is gentle, safe and without side effects. It is specifically designed to prevent and treat pediatric disorders using a special repertoire of points that are particular to children. 10 Combinations of specific body massage maneuvers are used for rebalancing particular patterns of disharmony. 11 Usually a Chinese pediatric body massage treatment lasts 20-30 minutes and is typically performed with the child clothed or wearing a diaper.

Pediatric body massage is useful in comforting and calming infants and treating colic, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, fever, earache and night crying. Regular daily preventative body massage done by the parents will increase circulation of Qi and blood, strengthen the immune system, and promote better sleeping and eating habits, socialization, coordination and disposition. Midwives can teach mothers how to body massage their babies as a means of strengthening their bond and keeping them calm, happy and healthy.

The Future of Oriental Medicine

As of 1997, more than one million Americans were being treated with acupuncture each year. 12 The World Health Organization has stated that there is sufficient evidence supporting the therapeutic effects of acupuncture for it to be considered an important part of primary health care, and that it should be fully integrated with conventional medicine. 13 Since the 1997 endorsement by the National Institutes of Health, interest in Oriental medicine is greater than ever before. Americans have begun to recognize that Oriental medicine provides great insight into many health problems not dealt with completely or satisfactorily by modern Western medicine.

Although still relatively new to the United States , the fact that Chinese medicine is gentle and free from side effects makes it an excellent choice for keeping new moms and their infants healthy. Midwives can incorporate Chinese medicine into their practice by working in conjunction with a licensed acupuncturist, taking continuing education classes in Oriental Body Therapy, or entering a Master’s program in Oriental Medicine that leads to state licensure and national certification as an acupuncturist


*The names of Chinese organs and systems do not necessarily correspond to the recognized physiologic organs.

9 Cline K . Chinese Pediatric Body massage : A Practitioners Guide. Rochester ,

Vermont : Healing Arts Press; 2000.

1 Cline K. Chinese Body massage for Infants and Children. Rochester , Vermont : Healing

Arts Press; 1999.

5, 6 Flaws B. Keeping Your Child Healthy with Chinese Medicine . Boulder , CO : Blue

Poppy Press ; 1996.

3, 4, 7, 8 Mack S, Tiran D. Complementary Therapies for Pregnancy and Childbirth,

Second Edition. London , England : Bailliere Tindall; 2000.

2, 12 National Institutes of Health Consensus Statement, 1997.

Wolfe H.L. How To Have a Health Pregnancy and a Health Birth With Traditional

Chinese Medicine . Boulder , CO : Blue Poppy Press; 1993.

13 World Health Organization.

10, 11 Ya-Li F. Chinese Pediatric Body massage Therapy . Boulder , CO : Blue Poppy Press;


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