Complementary therapies are used alongside care provided by doctors to treat a person’s mind or body, or both. Talk to your doctor before starting any complementary therapies, especially while you are pregnant. Complementary therapies should not replace necessary conventional medicine.
What are complementary therapies?
Complementary therapies are therapies that are not part of the standard medical care usually prescribed by medical doctors. There are many types of complementary therapies, including acupuncture, massage and naturopathy. They are also sometimes referred to as ‘integrative medicine’.
Sometimes these therapies may be described as ‘alternative’. Alternative therapies are used in place of conventional treatment from your doctor or healthcare provider, rather than alongside — as is the case with complementary therapies. Thet can be harmful if there is no evidence for these therapies, if they replace or delay treatments that are evidence-based and advisable, or if they have side effects.
Why do women use complementary therapy during pregnancy?
Some women turn to complementary therapies during pregnancy to help reduce symptoms such as nausea and vomiting and low back pain. Some women might also use these therapies to prepare for labour and to increase their chances of an uncomplicated birth.
Is complementary therapy right for you?
Ask your doctor or midwife about the effectiveness and safety of any complementary therapy, and whether they would support you trying it. You can also ask your doctor or nurse for recommendations of complementary health practitioners.
What questions should I ask complementary health practitioners?
- What are your qualifications? How long have you been practising?
- How does this treatment work? Is there evidence this treatment is effective?
- What risks or side effects are involved?
- How long should this treatment be used for? How will I know if it’s working?
- What’s the cost of the treatment? Can I claim the cost on Medicare or from my health fund?
What are types of complementary therapies?
Acupuncture or acupressure
Some studies suggest acupuncture may help to reduce backache or pelvic pain in pregnant women. Acupuncture or acupressure is also used to bring on labour, although its effectiveness is uncertain. Acupuncture or acupressure is generally safe when performed by a trained acupuncturist. Mild pain from the needles is the most common side effect.
Chiropractic and osteopathy
Chiropractic and osteopathy are used to reduce low back and pelvic pain in pregnant women. The effectiveness of these treatments is uncertain but they are generally thought to be safe for pregnant women.
Many women use pregnancy massage to help them cope with changes in their body, reduce stress and improve sleep. Usually the abdomen is not massaged at all or massaged very lightly. Massages are usually avoided in the first trimester and it’s best not to lie flat on your back in the second half of your pregnancy since this puts too much pressure on the vein that runs from your legs to your heart.
Pregnant women might use reflexology — where a therapist uses hands, fingers and thumbs to stimulate certain areas of the feet — to reduce low back or pelvic pain. It is reported to be safe.
Naturopathy is based on the belief in ‘nature’s healing power’. Treatments aim to support good health through things like diet, herbal supplements or exercise. There isn’t much research on the use of naturopathic treatments in pregnant women.
Hypnosis has been used to help with labour pain or to reduce stress. However, hypnotherapy techniques need to be practised to be effective during childbirth.
Biofeedback training aims to help women recognise body signals such as heart rate or tensed muscles and to change their physical responses during labour. There isn’t enough high-quality evidence to prove it’s effective at reducing labour pain.
What are types of complementary medicines?
Pregnant women are encouraged to take only certain supplements during pregnancy, such as those containing iron,folate and iodine. Speak to your doctor before you take any supplements during your pregnancy.
Herbal preparations commonly taken during pregnancy include raspberry leaf, ginger and chamomile, often in the form of herbal teas. Raspberry leaf is usually consumed in the last trimester as it’s thought to help prepare the body for birth. Ginger may help reduce nausea while chamomile is said to be relaxing. Ask your doctor or midwife about any herbal preparations you plan to take.
Homeopathy is based on the idea that if a substance causes symptoms in a healthy person, tiny doses of the substance can treat the symptoms in someone who is unwell. According to the National Health and Medical Research Council, there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.
What other therapies are there?
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
TENS is sometimes used to help relieve labour pain, but it’s uncertain whether TENS actually alleviates pain or simply distracts a woman from the pain. TENS is generally considered safe although there’s a risk of local skin irritation.
Some complementary therapies are no longer claimable on private health funds. This means you would have to pay the full fee for these treatments:
- Alexander technique, Feldenkaris, kinesiology
- Bowen therapy, reflexology, shiatsu
- Western herbalism, homeopathy, naturopathy
- Pilates, tai Chi, yoga
Resources and support
- Some types of complementary therapy practitioners, such as Chinese medicine practitioners and chiropractors, are registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). Registered health practitioners are required to meet quality and standards of care. Check if your complementary health practitioner is registered with AHPRA.
- Read more about complementary medicines on the NPS MedicineWise website or call 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424).
- Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to speak to a maternal child health nurse.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: February 2022