Many people think acupuncture is an ‘alternative’ therapy that’s a bit ‘hit and miss’, and not rooted in science or research.
Although acupuncture isn’t an integrated part of mainstream western medicine, it’s very much rooted in research and proven to work for a whole host of ailments and conditions.
Bear this in mind: acupuncture is a 2000+ year-old practice, repeatedly and consistently tried, tested and documented worldwide.
More recently, it’s become an increasingly popular choice for pregnant women who want to prepare their bodies for labor, or even to induce labor.
Acupuncture is a complete system of medicine – recognised by the World Health Organization as a treatment for many conditions.
Many people see western medicine as the ‘gold standard’ and the most superior care in current society. There is significant research, however, that shows acupuncture to be an effective form of treatment, and it is becoming more mainstream to use traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) alongside, or as a replacement for, western medicine.
In hospitals in China, where the benefits of TCM are much more widely understood, doctors do their rounds using acupuncture to help patients with their treatment.
If your due date is approaching and you’re considering acupuncture to prepare your body for labor, here are some answers to the most commonly asked questions.
Is pre-labor acupuncture safe for me and my baby?
Absolutely, and especially so in places like Australia and New Zealand, where practitioners of Chinese Medicine, Acupuncture and Herbs must be registered by regulatory bodies, and adhere to their strict policies and procedures.
These regulatory bodies ensure practitioners are fully qualified and keep patients safe.
What if I have an existing medical condition – e.g. high blood pressure or gestational diabetes?
Acupuncture is generally considered a safe and low intervention treatment that can be used with many co-existing medical conditions.
Before your first treatment, you should e discuss your full medical history with your acupuncturist. You might also like to let your midwife or maternity care provider know that you’re seeking out acupuncture.
Acupuncture has been shown to be a very effective complementary medicine and often improves patients’ response to standard medical treatment.
It might also be helpful in relieving symptoms associated with some of your pre-existing medical conditions.
Is pre-labor acupuncture safe for someone who’s had a cesarean?
The short answer is yes.
If you’re aiming for a VBAC, acupuncture can be an effective part of your strategy to prepare your body to go into labor, when it’s ready, and to labor as effectively as possible.
Acupuncture can be started at any stage of pregnancy, including postdates. As long as the baby is still in there it’s not too late to have a session.
How long does induction acupuncture take to work?
This is the $64,000 question!
As for the answer – nobody knows for sure, in the same way that stretch and sweeps aren’t a perfect or exact science.
The philosophy (not to mention duty of care) doesn’t permit a practitioner to attempt to force something to happen. This is why acupuncture works best as a pre-labor treatment, over several sessions.
The treatment allows the opening of pathways between oxytocin and prostaglandin receptors, which, with time, can support your body to go into labor when both you and your baby are ready.
You might hear stories of people going into labor during the acupuncture session. This is not so much because the acupuncture caused the labor but that the acupuncture released an energy blockage that was preventing the normal onset of labor.
When should I start having acupuncture?
For the reason above, arranging pre-labor sessions is the best way to approach a natural onset of labor.
This is because, in late-term pregnancy, things get a bit harder. There’s physical stress from a bigger baby and, because people put themselves under extra pressure without realising it, sometimes there’s more worry.
You might also sleep less at night and perhaps have a two-year-old hanging off you… it goes on.
It is recommended that you begin acupuncture sessions any time from 37 weeks if you want to use pre-labor specific points.
The cumulative effect is sometimes that baby stays in a bit longer.
Often there is too much emphasis on due dates; it’s part of human nature to cling to a date and then get concerned when it passes – especially for the first baby.
From a relaxation point of view, and in terms of accepting things as they are and building your confidence and strength to have a baby, acupuncture is fantastic.
What can I expect in my acupuncture session? What about my belly?
A typical first session involves taking some history: questions about how your pregnancy has been; pulse-taking on the wrists; lots of idle chit chat; and a few laughs.
There’ll be lots of pillows, and you’ll be lying on your most comfortable side, or propped up in a sitting position. Once you’re relaxed and comfortable, the session begins and usually lasts between 20 and 40 minutes.
Acupuncture needles are tiny. Sometimes you won’t feel them at all; other times there may be a slight ache as the needle reaches the right spot. Your belly is supported, and no needles will go near it in a typical session.
Are there any side effects? Should I rest after a treatment?
After your treatment, what you do depends on why you’re there and how much energy you have.
Some people will be asked to rest, others to do some gentle exercise. Your baby’s movements might increase, as she responds to your new state of relaxation.
There might also be an increase in Braxton Hicks, or pelvic pain; it really depends on the individual.
If you’re having acupuncture to induce labor it’s often a good idea to do some gentle exercise like curb walking, or bouncing on a yoga ball to encourage baby to descend and engage.
How else will acupuncture help my labor?
There are many principles involved in pre-labor acupuncture treatment.
Its main purposes are to calm the mind and help you get some rest, to release and strengthen the energy to make contractions effective when they start, and to move the energy gently around your baby so she is inclined to drop into the correct position, if not yet engaged.
If the baby is already engaged the treatment can help her engage further.
Depending on the baby’s position, acupuncture points can also be used to help the baby move into a more anterior position, which is ideal for labor.
This movement of energy also helps the physical processes of labor occur in a timely way. That means when labor starts, you are ready to birth your baby, and your baby is ready to arrive at the same time
What if I’m scheduled for a medical induction?
If you have a date scheduled for medical induction, more intensive acupuncture points can be used for induction of labor.
These points stimulate energy along the spleen, the gall bladder, and the bladder meridians, which promote oxytocin and prostaglandin production.
Because these points can be quite effective, it is recommended that you do not have an induction of labor session unless you are booked for a medical induction in the upcoming days or week.
Remember, the goal of pre-labor acupuncture is to prepare your body to labor as effectively as it can when your body and your baby are ready. Its purpose is not to force something to happen that isn’t going to happen naturally.
Can acupuncture help during labor?
Absolutely! There are lots of points that can be stimulated throughout labor to help with strengthening the energy of your contractions, reducing discomfort, and encouraging baby to descend and rotate into the pelvis.
Some maternity units employ midwives who are trained in acupuncture. In other units, you will have to hire an independent acupuncturist to be on call during your labor.
Speak to your care provider about what options are available for acupuncture in pregnancy.
Alternatively, your partner can use acupressure during labor to help provide relief.
A helpful guidebook on partner-led acupressure can be found here.
Can acupuncture help me after the birth of my baby?
After the birth of your new baby, your body has some adjustment to make. Acupuncture can help you by strengthening your body to speed up recovery.
For the first week or two postpartum, there are usually no needles – just ‘mother warming’ to put some energy back into the spot previously occupied by the baby.
This warming technique is designed to strengthen your kidney energy. Delivering your baby taxes this particular aspect of your energy a lot.
Points used to help milk supply and let down are similar to pre-labor points, as they stimulate similar energy lines.
What about Chinese herbs – can I take them, and do they help?
Chinese herbs are an integral part of TCM and can definitely help, but they are not necessarily a part of your treatment.
Remember, not all acupuncturists are trained in the use of Chinese herbs, so make sure your treatment provider is qualified to prescribe any herbs.
You might be referred to a herbalist who has more expertise in this area.
What should I look for when finding an acupuncturist?
You should look for acupuncturists who are specialists in pregnancy, birth, and postpartum.
They need to be confident in providing safe care to pregnant and postpartum people and know about appropriate positioning for pregnancy and forbidden points in pregnancy.
Some practitioners have dual qualifications, which can be very helpful. For example, some midwives are also qualified in acupuncture, which makes them ideal treatment providers.
“I was so skeptical about acupuncture until I found out I was pregnant. I had a huge panic attack and ended up in hospital, as my heart rate was very high.
“I had severe insomnia, I couldn’t drink or eat for three days, and weight dropped dramatically. No matter what I tried I couldn’t get my heart to slow down, and I was getting very concerned about the baby.
“I found a great acupuncturist who was absolutely amazing and I will continue to see them for years to come. Within two months of acupuncture treatments on a fortnightly basis, I was able to not only control but actually get rid of the anxiety.
“I continued to see my acupuncturist throughout my pregnancy for different reasons, as I no longer needed anxiety treatment. She assisted with headaches, huge break outs and morning sickness.
“Near the end of my pregnancy she induced me at 40 weeks (I was given a deadline due to a previous cesarean) and that night I had the show. Soon after, my son was born vaginally in a 10 minute active labor.
“My anxiety had a lot to do with the previous cesarean and a death in the family. I continue to go to acupuncture every 3 months and it’s for pure relaxation” – Daniela
“I saw my acupuncturist 4 times leading up to my scheduled induction date. The massage and acupuncture helped relax me immensely and having somebody who was confident in my body’s ability gave me a lot of reassurance.
“I went in for my scheduled induction in the morning, and only needed one dose of gels before things rapidly kicked off. When they did the initial assessment to give me the gel my cervix was already soft and stretchy.
“The doctor told me this was unusual for a first time mum, but when I told them I’d had acupuncture they said this was probably why.
“I very much believe the acupuncture was essential to allow my body to respond really quickly to my induction process” – Jamie
“I was anxious about the prospect of induction after being told I had a big baby, and was keen to avoid it.
“I had three acupuncture sessions in the last few weeks of pregnancy and ended up going into labor a week before my due date. I cannot describe the relief I felt when labor kicked off and I knew that the pressure to be induced would finally be over” – Kate