Did you use music to enhance your experience of labour? Or are you working on a playlist for the big day? You may recently have seen the videos Robbie Williams and his wife shared online, showing him playing (and singing) music to keep her distracted in labour! While various sources have referred to his behaviour as ‘bizarre’, there is a scientific basis to using music as a pain relieving measure for labour.
The use of music to provide comfort in labour and reduce pain perception and anxiety is backed by the findings of research studies, although these are of small scale (Phumdoung & Good 2003; Liu et al 2010). A recent study suggests that the use of music in combination with upright positions is more effective than synthetic oxytocin (“the drip”) in shortening the active phase of labour (Phumdoung et al 2014).
While research on the effects of music in labour is scant, a growing body of research supports the use of music in a variety of clinical settings. Studies have shown that music alleviates pain, both when used as a therapy in its own right and in conjunction with other methods. Music has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety in patients undergoing medical procedures, and, used post-operatively, to reduce the need for pain medication. It has both psychological and physical benefits.
So when it comes to birth, how can music help?
1. Music that makes us feel good does us good!
The amount of pain we perceive is linked to the emotional state we are in when we experience the stimulus (Nauert 2009). Music that evokes positive emotions and relaxes us can decrease the amount of pain we think we are in and help us to tolerate the sensations that we are experiencing.
2. Listening to music can increase the level of our ‘good’ hormones in labour.
Labour involves a hormone cocktail, the main ingredient of which is oxytocin. Oxytocin drives the uterus and is also a natural pain reliever. Music has been shown to increase oxytocin in the body. In a study comparing bed rest only with bed rest and music for patients recovering from heart surgery, oxytocin levels in the music group were significantly higher the day after surgery for the music group (Nilsson 2009). Music has also been shown to increase the release of dopamine into the bloodstream (Salimpoor et al 2011). Dopamine makes us feel happier, which affects our experience of pain. However, it is also the main neurotransmitter involved in our perception of time. Increased dopamine levels mean that labour can feel faster, in the same way as feeling good during a night out makes it pass in a flash!
3. Music provides an alternative focus that competes with your labour sensations.
We feel more pain when our attention is focused on the source. Music chosen by you works best (Bernatzky et. al 2011) as a point of focus, and research shows that music that is familiar to you and that hooks you in has greater pain relieving properties. So pick music that you love and gets you singing along. The more involving the music, the greater the benefit! One study showed that the better the listeners knew the lyrics of a song, the greater was the pain reduction experienced (Mitchell et al 2009). Music that is already infused with meaning and emotion for you, such as music you may have enjoyed with your partner in the past, is an ideal choice.
4. The act of listening means the brain processes less pain.
Since the brain processes music and pain along the same neural pathways, it is believed that music can block signals of pain at the spinal cord level, before they even reach the brain. This is the gate control theory of pain. This means music works in a similar way to a TENS machine.
As a doula, I once supported a woman who had a very long prelabour. We spent a day in her home when she was in early labour, with her partner selecting music that he knew she loved over the course of 12 hours or so. The day passed in a flash – for me, anyway!
Most of us have already experienced these beneficial effects of music – whether it’s the electro on your headphones helping you to work out for longer, your favourite album distracting you from the cleaning or that evocative holiday tune raising your spirits on a rainy December afternoon. So what’s on your playlist for your baby’s birthday?
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Nauert, R. (2009). Emotions Influence Perception of Pain. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 21, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2009/11/11/emotions-influence-perception-of-pain/9482.html
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Phumdoung, S., Youngwanichsetha, S., Mahattanan, S., Payakkamas, T., Maneechot, K., Chanudom, B. and Ajasariyasing, T. (2014), Prince of Songkla University Cat and upright positions together with music reduces the duration of active phase of labour and labour pain in primiparous women compared to oxytocin. Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 19: 70–77.
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Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A. & Zatorre, R.J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipating and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience, Published online 09 January 2011