Tag Archives: labor pain

Teaching Music as a Comfort Technique

pregnant woman listening to music on headphones

Many childbirth educators include background music within our classes – maybe we have energizing music playing as people arrive or over break, maybe we use relaxing music during relaxation techniques, maybe we use it as one of the tools during an ice exercise. Or we vaguely mention that you could have a birth playlist prepared. But I think it tends to be a background thing. How often do you explicitly talk about music in pregnancy, labor and postpartum and what the benefits are?

It turns out there is actually some good research into music in the perinatal period.

Music During Pregnancy

Several studies have shown that listening to music during a non-stress test reduces the parent’s anxiety and improves the results of the NST. (RCT by Catalgol, RCT by Oh, RCT by Soylu, trial by Dolker and RCT by Garcia-Gonzalez et al). With clearly proven benefits, and no risks, this seems like an easy thing to suggest. And while all these studies were in the context on an NST, one might be able to guess that listening to music during other stressful procedures or any time during pregnancy might also help reduce anxiety and improve baby’s responsiveness. Again, with no harm, is it worth sharing this idea?

One quasi-experiment found that when women in their third trimester listened to relaxing music with a tempo of 60 beats per minute for just 15 minutes, their anxiety level was significantly reduced. There were additional studies that looked at parents participating in music therapy sessions in their home and/or prenatal music classes. (cited in McCaffrey, et al)

Music During Labor

  • Dance and music combined and music alone both reduced pain and fear during active labor. (RCT by Gonenc and Dikemen)
  • Listening to music during labor led to lower levels of pain and anxiety, improved fetal heart rate and less postpartum analgesia. (RCT by Simavali, et al.)
  • Listening to music reduced pain and anxiety during latent phase, but no difference during active labor. (RCT by Liu et al)
  • Listening to music during labor reduced pain levels during active labor and at one hour postpartum, and decreased anxiety in active labor, second stage and one hour PP. (RCT by Buglione, et al)
  • In a systematic review and meta-analysis by Santavinez-Acosta, (they use the term “music therapy” but I believe the included studies were all listening to music) they found: less pain during latent and active labor, less post-cesarean pain, less anxiety during labor and in the first 24 hours, less pain meds after cesarean.
  • Another systematic review by Chen (note, there may be some overlap in the studies reviewed by this and the prior listing) showed lower anxiety, less depressive symptoms, lower pain and better blood pressure.
  • An integrative review by McCaffrey, et al, showed 15 out of 20 studies showed statistically significant decrease in pain, and four showed a decrease. 8 of 11 studies showed statistically significant decreases in anxiety. Music also promoted relaxation and decreased stress. Two studies showed faster labor progress.

Reasons posited for why listening to music reduces pain:

  • When music enters the ear, it stimulates the hypothalamus to produce dopamine and reduces cortisol. Causes the pituitary gland to release endorphins which decreases pain.
  • Gate control theory of pain – non-painful stimuli (music) close the nerve “gates” so less of the painful stimuli reach the brain. (Distraction.)
  • Positive memories may be associated with the music.

None of the studies showed any adverse effects or unfavorable outcomes.

Music and Cesarean:

Listening to music before surgery led to increased positive emotions, decreased negative emotions and lower blood pressure (RCT by Kushnir, et al). Listening to music during surgery reduces stress and anxiety (based both on subjective evaluation by the parent and objective parameters like saliva cortisol levels, heart rate and blood pressure). Stress levels continued to be lower two hours after the surgery. (RCT by Handan, et al; RCT by Hepp, et al; systematic review by Weingarten, et al; Cochrane review) When people listened to music after the surgery, they reported less pain and used less morphine. (RCT by Ebneshahidi and Mohseni)

Availability and Caregiver Preferences

In a survey of midwives and OB’s in Germany, 97% had the means to play music during vaginal birth, but just 38% of those did routinely. 47% had the ability to play music during a cesarean, but of those, only 15% typically did. 66% would recommend music during vaginal birth, and 38% during a cesarean. Most professionals felt music was helpful for team communication and patient communication, was relaxing to them and did not report that music distracted the medical team.

It may be worth educating parents that their caregivers might not think to suggest that they use music during labor or might not offer to play music during a cesarean, but that the parents can play music, or ask for it to be played in the OR, and generally that would be supported.

Types of Music

All of the above research is based on simply listening to music. The study protocols ranged a bit on whether the participant listened to music on headphones or in the room, and on the type of music played. Some used instrumental recordings only, some used songs with vocals. In some cases, there was standard music played for all, in some the participants were able to choose amongst a few standardized selections, perhaps in different genres to appeal to different tastes. Some used music associated with cultural traditions or “relaxing” music with no major changes in dynamics. In other cases, the person in labor chose the music.

I have always encouraged parents to think about having two kinds of playlists – one that motivates them to get up and moving which can be helpful when you’re getting tired but know that movement and positioning is helpful and one that relaxes them and make them feel safe and comforted.

Where to Cover

Here are ideas for where to include this info in a prenatal class:

  • When talking about stress reduction in pregnancy, touch on the benefits of music for reducing anxiety and improving baby’s heart rate.
  • When talking about exercise, talk about creating a get-up-and-get-moving playlist that you can use for exercise during pregnancy and then use in labor if desired.
  • When teaching relaxation exercises, talk about creating a soothing playlist to use during pregnancy to calm you and build positive associations, then use it again in labor.
  • When talking about what to pack for the hospital, remind them to prepare their playlist.
  • When talking about getting settled into the hospital or birth center after triage, remind them to turn on their music to create the environment they will best labor in.
  • When I teach the 3R’s of Labor Coping (Relaxation, Rhythm and Ritual) I always say “if you turn on music and the person in labor relaxes, then keep it on! If you turn it on and she tenses, turn it off for that contraction, then between contractions, try to figure out if all music is bad, or just that particular music (or volume or whatever), then correct it.
  • When teaching how to have the “best possible cesarean” if it comes to that, include asking for music to be played.

Photo credit: from https://www.beautyandgroomingtips.com/2013/04/6-confidence-tricks-for-pregnancy-blues-days.html, marked in google search as free to share and use


Wallet Cards for Birth Classes

Long ago, I made small cards of the Key Questions for Informed Choice that I gave to students to keep in their wallets as a reminder. Recently, someone asked me for a copy of the file so they could print their own, and I discovered I had mis-placed it.

So, today, I created some new wallet cards, that you are welcome to use with doula clients, childbirth education students, or whoever would find them helpful.

Key Questions for Informed Choice

card listing key questions - benefits, risks, alternatives, timing

This file contains two versions of the key questions. Refer your clients to podcast episode 8 (or its transcript) to learn more about maternity care choices.

To learn more about how I teach clients the questions and how to weigh those against their personal goals and values, read about Teaching Decision Making.

Labor Comfort Techniques Reminder Card

labor comfort techniques card

I already had a two-page cheat sheet Guide to Labor Support. I created a comfort techniques wallet card to accompany it. Your clients can find the full Guide on the transcript of podcast episode 1 on Your Toolbox for Coping with Labor Pain.

There is more on the 3R’s in my episode on the Stages of Labor.

Visual Reminder of Comfort Techniques

comfort technique reminder card

If you feel like that first card is too wordy, and want something more visual, check out my visual comfort cards. These are not intended to stand alone. They would be best as reminders of concepts and techniques that you taught them, or that they can find in episode 4 – comfort techniques for labor. (The transcript for the episode includes a printable 2 page handout on these techniques.)

Printing the Cards

You could easily print these on paper or cardstock and cut them apart by hand.

I print my own nametags, so I always have “Name Badge Insert Refills” on hand, so I designed them to print on those. (They would also print on any of these products: 74461, 74549 or these Amazon brand cards. Note, those links are affiliate links, and I get a small referral fee from Amazon if you purchase after clicking on those links.)  These can easily be broken apart to create nice professional looking wallet size cards you can share.

Pain Medications for Labor

This episode offers an overview of medications for labor pain and childbirth – nitrous oxide, IV opioids, and epidural analgesia. For each it covers how it’s administered, the benefits – how it helps with labor pain, and the possible side effects. There is also a detailed discussion of labor support for a person using epidural analgesia.

A full transcription with links to more information is available at https://transitiontoparenthood.wordpress.com/for-parents/labor-and-birth/pain-medication-for-labor/

Labor Support

Continuous labor support, which can be provided by a partner or spouse, other family or friends, a professional doula or by medical caregivers has been shown to reduce interventions, improve outcomes, and improve satisfaction with the birth. This episode is all about how to provide effective labor support: by learning about childbirth, learning about what best comforts the person you will support in labor, creating an environment where she is comfortable and feels able to do what she needs to do to cope without being judged, watching for Relaxation, Rhythm, and Ritual and reinforcing those, and – most importantly – helping her to feel safe, loved and protected. When someone feels safe, loved and protected, oxytocin and endorphins flow, and labor progresses faster and hurts less. [Transcript of episode.]

Comfort Techniques for Labor

Learn comfort techniques and learn why they work. Cognitive strategies include education, visualization, affirmations, and choosing to view pain as a positive sign of labor progress. Gate Control techniques work by focusing  your attention on something pleasant (like music, a beautiful view or aromatherapy) instead of focusing on the labor pain – this blocks pain signals from reaching the brain, so you’ll experience less pain. Counter-irritants include things like biting your lip – a pain you control – to help make the pain you can’t control feel more manageable. And body mechanics involves using position, movement and massage to encourage baby to move into the best position to help labor to progress and be less painful. Here’s a printable handout that summarizes comfort techniques for labor.

[Transcription of episode and checklist of comfort measures available at https://transitiontoparenthood.wordpress.com/for-parents/labor-and-birth/comfort-techniques-for-labor/]

Stages of Labor and the 3R’s

An overview of the stages of labor and comfort techniques for the first stage of labor: Early labor, as the cervix moves from 0 to 5 cm dilated is the longest phase of labor, but also the least intense. The focus is on Relaxation, so techniques like slow deep breathing visualization, massages and baths all help. In active labor as the cervix goes from 5 to 8 cm, contractions are longer, stronger, and closer together and take more work to cope with. The focus is on Rhythm, so rhythmic breathing helps, as does movement such as walking, slow dancing, or rocking on a birth ball or in a rocking chair. In transition, as the cervix dilates to 10 cm, contractions are coming hard and fast and it can be very overwhelming. So, the focus is Ritual – find something that works to reduce pain, and just keep doing it on every contraction to help feel like there’s some control over the process. [Transcript of podcast episode 3 at: https://transitiontoparenthood.wordpress.com/for-parents/labor-and-birth/]

Understanding Labor Pain

I discuss the physiology of pain and ways that people who have been through birth  describe how contractions feel. Given all of the physical changes and challenges of labor, it’s not surprising it is painful for many people. The acronym P.A.I.N. can remind us that labor pain is Purposeful, Anticipated, Intermittent, and Normal. However, understanding what factors make that pain worse than it has to be helps us learn how to reduce it. The Fear Tension Pain Triangle theory tells us that when we’re fearful, we tense up. As we tense, the pain increases, which frightens us more…. the fear increases, and so on. Instead, we want to explore ways to shift this to the Confidence Relaxation Comfort Triangle to make labor more manageable. [Transcript of podcast episode.]

Labor Pain Toolbox

Podcast Episode 1: The most common question from people preparing for labor is ‘how will we handle the pain’? This episode provides an overview of all the tools that we can stock in a Toolbox for Coping with Labor Pain. It introduces both non-drug comfort techniques and pain medications, explores how the choice of pain coping techniques influences the whole experience of labor, and discusses the Pain Medication Preference Scale, a helpful tool for clarifying and summarizing priorities related to pain medication. Knowing someone’s preference helps to guide the labor support team in how to support them through the challenges of labor. Learn about all these tools by listening to more episodes of this podcast, or by reading Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn.

[Transcript of this episode, with links to more info.]

Nitrous Oxide for Labor Pain

Nitrous oxide (also called “laughing gas” or “gas and air”) has long been in common use for labor pain in other countries, being used by more than half of laboring women in such countries as England, Finland, Sweden, and Canada. It has not been common in the United States in recent decades (it was only available at 5 hospitals in 2012); however, its popularity is now increasing as equipment becomes more widely available, and may soon be seen in more hospitals and out of hospital birth centers. This online article is intended as a supplement to chapter 13 of the 2016 edition of Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn which does not cover nitrous oxide.

How Administered

Nitrous oxide is a gas. It is mixed 50/50 with oxygen, and inhaled through a mask. (Note: If you’ve had nitrous at the dentist, that’s a 70/30 or 80/20 mixture. So the dose given in labor is lower than the dose at dental procedures, and has a milder effect.) The laboring mother holds the mask to her face whenever she wants a dose. The gas only flows when she inhales. When she moves the mask away, the medication stops. (To see what the equipment looks like in use, do an online image search for “nitrous oxide in labor.”)

The peak pain relief effect kicks in about 50 seconds after you start inhaling. But the peak intensity of contraction pain tends to be 25 – 45 seconds into a contraction. That means you need to start inhaling 30 seconds BEFORE the next contraction is expected so the gas is in full effect when the contraction pain peaks. It can be tricky to get timing just right.


Nitrous oxide stimulates the brain to release endorphins and dopamine, hormones that help to reduce pain. Nitrous oxide does not completely relieve labor pain, but women are less bothered by the pain. It reduces anxiety, and can cause a mildly euphoric feeling. Women describe themselves as feeling relaxed and calm while using it. Women report that they liked the fact that they had control over the administration. (To learn more about the laboring person’s experience of nitrous, watch this video from Vanderbilt at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPyuerAoKg8)

Other benefits are that it’s inexpensive (at some hospitals, there’s no extra charge – it’s included in room cost), it takes effect quickly, and if you stop using it, the effects fade quickly (it has a half-life of 3 minutes) rather than remaining in your system for a long time. That means that if you decide nitrous does not provide enough pain relief, it’s easy to move on to other options, such as epidural analgesia.


One study (Pasha, 2012) found that 92% of women had less pain with nitrous than without. They were also less likely to have severe pain. On nitrous, 41% reported severe pain and 10% reported very severe pain. In the no-nitrous group, 55% had severe pain and 27% had very severe pain.

It’s important to note that nitrous oxide is a mild pain reliever. You should not expect it to take away all your pain. An epidural is much more effective at that; however, an epidural also has more tradeoffs and side effects, so you may choose to start with nitrous and see if that offers enough relief. Some nurses describe the choice to have nitrous as “why not try it and see if it helps.”

Rather than thinking of nitrous as pain relief, it may help to think of it as a ‘coping boost.’ One study showed that it did not reduce the intensity of pain much (as measured on a visual analog pain scale), but after the study period, when given the option to stop using it, women wanted to continue using it anyway. (Carstinou, 1994) The unpleasantness of the pain was reduced, and seemed more manageable. Another study found that 98% of users were satisfied with the experience of using nitrous oxide. (Pasha, 2012) Studies also show that women say they would use it again in a subsequent labor.


Unlike epidural analgesia, nitrous does not require extra procedures or extra monitoring. You will not need an IV or continuous fetal monitoring. You are also able to stand, move, and change positions. (If the oxygen comes from a portable tank, you can move around with it, but if the oxygen is piped in from the wall, you’ll need to stay near the bed.)

Possible Side Effects

Side effects on mother and baby are minimal, and less than those experienced with epidural analgesia and with IV / IM narcotics. They can include nausea, dizziness, drowsiness and a hazy memory of events. There is a small chance you could lose consciousness, but if you do, you drop the mask away from your face, and quickly recover. Nitrous does not slow labor and does not affect your ability to push. It does not appear to affect baby at birth. The portable pump is loud, but nurses report this does not seem to bother the user.

Nitrous is contra-indicated if you have persistent anemia / vitamin b12 deficiency.

Timing in Labor

Can be used at any time in labor, except you cannot have nitrous if you have had narcotics in the past two hours. You must wait for them to wear off.

Some cases where it might be especially helpful: during transition, during anxiety provoking procedures (such as vaginal exams, IV starts, stitches for a tear), for women who arrive at the hospital in heavy labor and need quick relief, and at any time by someone who wants to delay getting an epidural. Birth center midwives also report using it when a mom is considering a transfer to the hospital for pain medication. Anecdotally, they say that about half the time it has allowed the client to remain at the birth center.

Comparison to Other Methods

On page 211 – 212 of the book, we offer a chart called “Nonmedicated Labor versus Medicated Labor” that compares what labor is like if no pain medications are used, or if IV narcotics or epidural analgesia are used. Here is that same information for nitrous oxide, so you can easily compare and contrast to the other options.

Pain-Relief Option Used Nitrous Oxide
How it affects your experience of pain Increases pain-relieving endorphins, eases anxiety or fear, and enhances your mood. Small decrease in pain intensity, but makes pain less unpleasant. Can boost your ability to cope.
Feedback from women who used it “Labor was still intense, but it took my fear away and helped me calm down. It made it seem like coping with the pain was doable.”
How it affects your mental state You’re relaxed, calm, may be drowsy or light-headed.
How it affects your mobility You can walk, move around and change positions. If the equipment is hooked up to the wall (rather than being on a mobile cart), you will have to stay close to the bed.
What you’ll need from your support people You’ll still be experiencing pain (though you’ll be less distressed by it). You’ll still want support with comfort techniques and emotional support. Also, they can tell you when a contraction is about to start so you can begin inhaling. (Nitrous oxide is most effective if you start 30 seconds before the contraction.)
Equipment and precautions required You’ll hold the mask that dispenses the nitrous, inhaling from it as desired. Some women need an oxygen sensor on their fingers.
Impact on labor progress Does not affect labor progress.
Timing Can be used at any time, especially during anxiety provoking times in labor.
Availability Very limited availability in the U.S.
Possible risks to you Minimal. (See above.)
Possible risks to baby No apparent risks
Cost Inexpensive
Best option for you if… You just need a little boost to your ability to cope, or need to reduce your anxiety.

For more information:

Source for study data cited: Pasha, et al. Maternal expectations and experiences of labor analgesia with nitrous oxide. Iran Red Crescent Medical Journal, 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3587869/