I was about six weeks away from giving birth to my first baby, and was starting to feel like a cartoon character of a pregnant woman. That’s me putting my hand to my lower back, tossing and turning all night, and kvetching over various other discomfort—who knew pregnancy can cause carpal-tunnel-like sensations? That said, I had one mission in mind: to find Chicago’s best prenatal massage.
Though I’m a rubdown junkie in my “civilian” life, I’d avoided spas throughout most of my pregnancy. As a first-time mom-to-be, I wasn’t totally sure massage was safe with a baby on board. But according to Sarah Halffmann, nurse practitioner at Gynecology Institute of Chicago: “It’s typically safe to start massages in any trimester, as long as the massage therapist is certified and has experience with prenatal clients.”
There are some things to keep in mind, though. “We always recommend a pregnant patient to clear a prenatal massage with their current provider as every person has a different history,” Halffmann says. “And a woman should avoid a massage of she is having severe morning sickness, as laying down can increase nausea. Also, it is not advised to have a massage if a woman cannot lay comfortably, has a high-risk pregnancy, or has an increased risk for preterm labor.”
Morning sickness typically is most prevalent in the first trimester, but there are also things to look out for farther down the road. Dr. Nicole Williams, founder of the Gynecology Institute, says: “When you are in the later trimester of pregnancy, be careful of services that have you lying flat on your back for an extended period of time, which could cut off vital blood flow to the fetus. Otherwise prenatal massage—especially of swollen lower extremities—could certainly help a mom-to-be relax.”
Relaxation isn’t the only perk. According to Halffmann, prenatal massage can do everything from improve sleep to reduce nerve pain and lead to smoother labor.
And then, there’s the pampering aspect that’s flat-out good for the soul. Betsy Weber, a local postpartum doula and placenta encapsulation specialist, says: “I really can’t overemphasize the importance of pampering a pregnant mother. Carrying a baby is a huge physical and emotional load. Ideally, the entire community would surround and support a pregnant or postpartum mother. When a mother’s needs are met, her baby’s needs are better met, and we set a better stage for the next generation.”
That was all the convincing I needed to get back on the massage table. For the next couple of weeks, I turned my aches and pains over to the experts at local hotel, gym, and boutique spas. Here’s what each spot had to offer.
The Spa at Ritz-Carlton, Chicago
The swanky spa recently completed a renovation, and has the deeply civil vibe you’d expect from anything Ritz. Vanilla candles burn in the reception area, public spaces are dim and plush, and the massage table is swathed in sheets with a million-thread count. (That’s an unscientific fact—but it sure felt like it.) The spa offers a 50-minute or an 80-minute “Naturally Nurtured” massage ($160 or $210), and the vibe is restorative. Translation: this is a gentle, soothing, and indeed nurturing treatment that works best to relieve stress as you lie on your side and cuddle cushy pillows. (Dr. Williams would be proud!) A major perk of such a high-end spa are its amenities, which invite you to linger after your treatment is done. And though pregnant women are advised to stay out of saunas and steam rooms, there’s always the indoor pool or mocktails at the freshly redone bar upstairs. (160 E. Pearson St., ritzcarlton.com)
Spa Boutique at The Godfrey Hotel Chicago
While some of the other services I sampled left me in a mellow daze, Spa Boutique’s massage is one that I could feasibly squeeze in during lunch hour, then return to work to write actual coherent words. With only two treatment rooms, the relatively low-frills spa has a Prenatal Rescue Massage that can last anywhere from 30 to 80 minutes ($80 to $235). Indeed, this targeted treatment felt like a rescue for that day’s pregnancy special: tension radiating from my neck down my arm.
While he worked, the therapist chatted with me about what was happening with my muscles and nerves, and offered a few helpful tips for minimizing pain for the rest of my pregnancy. (Word to the wise: invest in a maternity bra that really fits.) I didn’t drift off to fairyland, even despite the gentle flute music—but I did emerge refreshed. (127 W. Huron St., godfreyhotelchicago.com)
Beyond the studio that hosts famously intense fitness classes, Exhale has treatment rooms where technicians dole out facials, body treatments, and (bingo!) the 60-minute prenatal massage ($140).
First, a word on the vibe. The locker room serves both the spa clients and the guests who are there to work out, so expect a bit of bustle around you as you change into your robe. The waiting area, too, has sort of a fitness-oriented feel. Though the dim lounge serves tea and has heated neck pillows on standby, you may be able to overhear an instructor counting down reps from the adjacent studio.
No matter, though: that will all melt away once you climb onto the heated massage table. This was a highly skilled massage that didn’t skimp on pressure, and it was equal parts relaxing and effective in working out kinks and tension. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll extend my visit with a Flow + Chill yoga class. (For the time being, it would take a lot of convincing to get me into Barre + Cardio at the moment.) (945 N. State St., exhalespa.com)
At the eco-friendly spa along the Chicago River, a set of services are designed just for mothers-to-be and new mothers. Products used in the facials are free of harmful chemicals, and manicures and pedicures use nontoxic polish. Then, there’s the 60- to 90-minute prenatal massage ($100–$140), during which clients lie in a side position on a gently heated table.
During the amazingly soothing service, the technician took extra time to make sure my posture was correct (meaning, that my back aligned correctly with the side of the table, so that I wouldn’t be too hunched over). Afterwards, she taught me some take-home exercises that continue to help me loosen up the muscles in my shoulders.
Now, from here on out, you should know that I’m a big fan of all things woo-woo. So, I was a big fan of Allyu’s pillow-strewn meditation tent. Inside a giant crystal is surrounded with white fringe and bathed in a halo of white light, and clients are invited to kick back and reflect after spa services.
There’s also a box in which to leave handwritten wishes, which staffers collect and release at each new moon. I loved writing a wish for my soon-to-be-born son. (600 W. Chicago Ave., allyuspa.com)
I really put this massage to the test, arriving after a stressful (and perhaps, particularly hormone-fueled day). But, my [insert expletive] attitude was no match for this celestial Wicker Park spot.
Past the shop that’s filled with crystals, sage, and mystical tools such as “angel cards,” the homey spa is plied with pillow-laden couches and patterned rugs. Plus, there’s crystal energy to spare: a giant purple stone glows in a spot-lit alcove that anchors the hallway outside the treatment rooms. The cozy room I got my massage in was lovely, too, with pale pink walls featuring painted feathers and birds.
The 30- to 90-minute Enerssage ($55 to $150) can be tailored to pregnant women, and purpose to release toxins and “cleanse your energetic field.” On this day in particular, I was in!
To begin the service, the therapist asked me to close my eyes, set an intention, and pull a card that named one of the Ruby Room’s house-blended Essence Sprays. The spray I landed on, B Balanced, blends palo santo and jasmine oils, and was spritzed at frequent intervals throughout the massage. Ahh, tropical flowers.
Even more effective than the calming scents, though, were the assured strokes of the therapist. Though this was a full body massage, the tech spent extra time releasing built-up lactic acid in that pesky, painful part of my neck.
When I got home, my husband commented that my energy was noticeably more relaxed, and that even my complexion seemed to look better than before. So, consider this a three-in-one of sorts: a massage, a therapy session, and a magical facial. (1743–45 W. Division St., rubyroom.com)