Studies have, for a long time, shown that deep breathing, mental imagery, deep massage or acupressure, and the presence of a constant companion or coach during labor can ease labor pains, making the miracle of birth more, well, enjoyable.
During the birth of all three of my sons, all three vastly different, I used all of these methods for pain management during labor. But my secret for pain management was… music.
Music has the power to take everyday moments in life and make them sacred. Music allows your mind to retrieve and feel with the same intensity experiences that happened two months or even two decades ago. Music harnesses tremendous power. But how can it help with labor pains?
The Magic Pain Soother
Perinatal Nursing supports that music can be an effective means for managing both pain and stress during labor. A study showed that using music during childbirth has a significant effect on mother’s perception of pain (Browning 2000).
Another second study in 2000 revealed perinatal physicians, nurses, and caregivers became more relaxed, slowed their activities, and demonstrated increased respect for laboring mothers when music was used (Difranco 1998). Music was also found in a (Wiand 1997) study, when combined with progressive relaxation, to be more effective in inducing relaxation in laboring mothers.
In the months before each of my sons were born, I started creating my “Birth Soundtrack.” When the big day came, wafting from my labor room like a sweet breeze, were sounds of “designer music” from my birth playlist.
Sounds that both soothed and motivated me to work diligently and gracefully toward delivering my sons into this world. To make my playlists, I scoured my music library and uploaded artists sounding out from across centuries of music… from Mozart’s Serenade for Winds to Sam Cooke’s That’s Where It’s At.
What is Designer Music?
In the field of music therapy, “designer music” is defined as music that is selected to have a specific effect on the listener. It is proven more effective than listening to just any music. I use music and sound as therapy as an educator in integrative medicine and physical therapy. I craft and use designer music in private and group therapy sessions, and in community-based classes which integrate yoga and Pilates for therapeutic benefit. As a musician, sometimes I even use my voice as therapy, speaking and singing for therapeutic benefit during sessions.
But guess what? You don’t need special training. With a few tips listed below, you can design your own music, too.
Designing Your Birth Soundtrack
Here are a few guidelines for expectant mothers and other patients who want to use music for pain or stress relief:
Certain instruments and genres of music are better suited to promote relaxation and a sense of well being.
The ancient medical systems of Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine have identified instruments which are best suited to different emotional states and physical needs. However, experts in the field of music therapy agree that the most important aspect of using music as medicine is pleasing the ear of the listener.
Make a playlist
Make a playlist for your smart phone or mp3 player, or download music onto a USB memory stick that you can plug into your car.
- Create a minimum of 8 hours of continuous music. If you have a long labor (my first one was 36 hours), you’ll need more than just a few hours of music to get you through.
- Choose relaxing as well as motivating music which inspires you and develops your sense of connection and bonding with your unborn child.
- Order your music with the stages of labor, or create separate playlists for each stage. First stage can be much longer but less intense than second stage labor. Second stage labor will bring with it different requirements. During transition and delivery you may opt for silence so you can hear those first sounds from your baby. Or, you may opt to have quiet, contemplative music playing which motivates you to go the distance.
- Avoid rock or other heavy music which emphasizes drums or electric instruments like guitar or synthesized piano. These genres have been proven to elevate vital signs and cause feelings of anger, hostility, and despair.
Name Your Playlist(s).
You may choose to create different playlists. With each birth, I get increasingly more “complex” and detailed with my playlists. By the third birth I had 4 different playlists:
- Baby Breathing: One for inspiration and meditation during early labor
- Baby Labor: One for motivation and “hard-core” meditation to work through hard labor
- Baby Thanks: For postpartum bliss (I used that one for years after giving birth) Consider a post-partum playlist for after delivery and when you return home. I made a separate playlist for after delivery. I played it during the entire stay of my post-partum in the hospital. (The nurses and my midwife loved it. The staff told me they made special trips to my room just to hang out and chill to the cool music).
- Baby Dance: Literally, this one expressed the sheer joy I felt after giving birth, and I did use it do dance with all my sons after each of them were born. I also made one for a friend for post-partum healing and called it “Baby Hopes & Dreams.”
Buy the appropriate sound/stereo set up.
These days this can mean just carrying your smartphone to the birth facility. Relying on just your smartphone or iPad speakers may not be enough to fill the space of your labor room. Since we wanted the best sound, we bought a tiny set of speakers to connect to our iPhone. Since I was “busy” during labor, my husband took care of music setup. In fact, it was the first thing he did when we got settled into our room. Of course, if you are home birther, no transport is necessary, just plug in and play!
I used music throughout the entire labor. When it came time to delivery, my husband made sure (we pre-planned this) that a continuous play of meditative, calm solo piano music flowed low and quiet so I could hear my baby’s first cries. I can attest that in my first birth the music helped to calm and attune everyone including the medical staff. During my last birth, my son was born to the soothing sounds of Native American music, part of my heritage.
If You Don’t Prefer Music, No Worries
If you prefer silence during labor music and sound therapy can still help you manage pain. Nada Yoga, or the yoga of sound, teaches chanting and vocal toning as a way to ease pain and suffering.
Sighing the sound “mmm” with the mouth closed on your exhale, during contractions, has been found to be balancing, harmonizing, and integrating to the nervous system: lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and assisting in pain relief. In yoga, it is the most subtle and most powerful of toning sounds.
Music Brings Consciousness Forward
Anecdotally, music was just as important to me as having a companion at my side. Although I would not trade my incredible midwife, husband (who acted as coach/doula), and nursing staff for anything, music made my birth experiences more memorable, enjoyable, and now years later – music has created a permanent recall of those emotions I felt right after giving birth. It allows me to recapture that intense feeling of blissful joy that I felt right after giving birth – when I met each of my sons for the first time. That, perhaps, is the best reason of all to use music during labor.
But more than just for laboring women, everyone can benefit from using music prior to, during, or after medical care. Scientific sources supporting therapeutic benefit of music are numerous and have been proven in children, open heart surgery patients, cancer patients, pre-operative patients, women waiting on surgical procedures, or testing (such as a mammography), just to name a few.
Take advantage of the instant healing effects of music. Experiment with how different instruments and genres of music create different moods and physical states in your body. Music is not just something to listen to… but to heal and heighten your enjoyment of life.
*Photo of author singing to her firstborn son
- Using Music During Childbirth
- Di Franco, J (1988). Relaxation: Music. In F.H. Nichols and S. Smith Humenick, Childbirth education practice, research, and theory (pp.201-215). Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.
- Wiand (1997). Relaxation levels achieved by Lamaze-trained pregnant women listening to music and ocean sound tapes. Journal of Perinatal Education 6(4), 1-8.