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Big in China: Specialized Breast Massage for New Mothers

Shanghai Daily reports that the “the hottest new job in the postpartum care market” is a “lactagogue” — a kind of breastfeeding helper who offers specialized breast massage to help get the milk flowing.

A mom with engorged breasts from plugged milk ducts can pay for a 90-minute breast massage for 300 yuan (about $50 US). The phenomenon seems to be an interesting outgrowth of a new booming consumer culture and traditional Chinese medicine which promotes the use of acupuncture, warmth, herbs and massage among other things.

I’m not sure exactly what the massage entails and I’m curious about what else is done during the 90 minute treatment — clogged ducts could be helped with some gentle massage, but the problem could persist if the root cause is not addressed. According to one new mom quoted in the Shanghai Daily, the massage session worked wonders to get her milk flowing. Most of the women who get the treatment do so because friends recommended it. It must be working.

I asked Meredith Fein Lichtenberg, a friend, NYC-based childbirth educator (CCE) and internationally board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) what she thinks about this practice:

“Are they doing massage? Reverse pressure softening? Lymphatic drainage? Hand expression? Loving touch? It’s interestingly unclear,” she said.”Clinically, as an IBCLC, massage in various forms can be done on a client or taught to a client, and used to reduce edema (swelling) or manage flat nipples, or engorgement, or work with a clogged duct, among other things. Those can be super helpful when there is a clinical need and requires a bit of expertise.”

She also noted that massage can increase levels in the hormone oxytocin which is also associated with milk flow and that expressing milk by hand can essentially get things going so that the newborn has an easier time latching on to suck.

Another breastfeeding expert, Ruth Callahan CLC, PCD (DONA), owner of New York’s DoulaCare.com, made this observation:
“We use breast massage here (before pumping and for clogged ducts as in the article) the mother is taught how to do it.  Breast massage in the article remedies what could easily be avoided if best practices for mother/baby dyad was used for the baby to nurse frequently, avoid engorgement.

We have similar problems in the USA rooted in hospital birth practices/culture with routine newborn nurseries used to keep baby away from the mother that interrupts the normal relationship. Looking at the birthing practice and customs in China might give us a hint to why women are suffering from clogged ducts/engorgement that created a profession to address the problems they have with breastfeeding. Not much different here with the growing profession of IBCLC , CLC  needed.”

I don’t know the finer points of Chinese birth practices but I did read recently that they’ve changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. In Chinese hospitals studied between 2007 and 2008, 46% of babies were born via C-section. According to a recent and fascinating Slate article, the reasons for the medicalizing of birth in China are complex but economic changes play a part, “in the 1990s, as a nationalized health care system gave way to a market-based model, C-sections took off.”

I’m a fan of many aspects of Chinese medicine. I love the emphasis on warmth and touch, and I see how these practices can be especially helpful for women in labor and new mothers. I wonder if the gentle, nurturing attention woman get from these professional breastfeeding masseurs offers more than just a remedy for mastitis? Maybe the unplugging of ducts is simultaneously plugging these moms into a helpful support network?

photo credit: Dodgy Eye/Flickr

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