Using Music in Labor

In honor of Labor Day, I thought I would take the opportunity to write about the labor mothers go through to give birth. More specifically, I wanted to write about using music in labor. I have had several people ask me how I chose music for my labor and delivery, so I wanted to pass along that information. Using music during labor is something I took more seriously the second time around. (The first time around, I really thought I could just use it and it would be fine, but it didn’t really work that way.) Being a music therapist myself, I wanted to try to use the principles of Music Therapy Assisted Childbirth (MTACB). Yes, that is really a thing – I didn’t make it up. There are music therapists who have been trained in this method (MTACB) to help mothers cope with labor, using music. The information I have for this post is information I got from another music therapist who has gone through the training. At this point, I have not had the training myself, but it is definitely on my list of things to do in the future.

This music therapist suggested that music be divided into playlists for each stage of labor:

1. Early labor

2. Active Labor

3. Pushing

4. After the baby is born

For early labor, it was suggested that I choose only instrumental music. The music should be something you can already produce a relaxing response to easily, so it will probably be slow and soothing. It should also be something that can help you sleep, because sleeping during early labor is a great idea, so that you have energy to deal with active labor. For my playlist, I included music that Anya goes to sleep to, because it helped me to keep a positive focus. I had rocked her to that music for over 2 years and my body had already been conditioned to relax to it.

For active labor, music with or without lyrics works, but something with a stricter tempo  that you can move to is helpful. I was told that if I wasn’t sure whether or not to include a song on this playlist, I should try to move to it. Active labor takes more energy and focus to get through (especially without medication), and movement is one of the big things many women use to cope. Songs with which you already have a positive association with also work well. For my playlist, I used a lot of music that reminded me of our wedding, our time in Jamaica, etc. Active labor is probably one of the longer stages of labor, so you will want to make sure you have a lot of music on this playlist.

For pushing and transition, the tempo and rhythm should be even more driving, because this is the most intense of the stages. Something with four beats per measure works well. To determine whether or not a piece worked well for this playlist, I tried to breathe to it and imagine how it would be to push while listening to it. Any lyrics used in this stage should be motivating.

I was also told to form a playlist that I liked to call stuck music. Oftentimes, women get “stuck” at a certain point of dilation and things seem to stall. A lot of OB’s, at this point, will want to add drugs or break a woman’s water to get things moving. Instead, one can try to change the music. The only requirement for this playlist is that the music be completely different from the rest of your playlists. So if there is music you really like but the tempos, lyrics, etc. don’t work for another playlist, this is a good place for it.

For after the baby is born, choose approximately an hour’s worth of music that you think would help create a nice bonding atmosphere for you, your partner, your new baby, and any other children. I was told to think about the first song I want my newborn to hear once he was brought into the world. Unfortunately, we totally forgot to switch the playlist during my son’s birth, but we used the playlist a lot in the mornings for the first couple weeks of his life. We all listened to it while eating breakfast and it helped to occupy him.

Things to keep in mind…

  • Active labor is probably the longest of the stages, so that playlist should be longer than the others.
  • Keep in mind that the time for each stage will vary and cannot be predicted. The key is to be sure you have enough music that you won’t have to repeat the playlist so much that you are irritated by the music. I had 3.7 hours for early labor, 6.2 hours for active labor, 1.2 hours for pushing, 1.2 hours for after the baby was born, and 38 minutes of stuck music, though I probably should have had more of that, but luckily, I didn’t need it.
  • I went through each piece in each playlist and ordered them so that they started with the slower pieces and ended with the faster songs. I also tried to keep similar-sounded songs together as much as possible. The idea is to have smooth transitions between songs and nothing that disturbs the zone you have going during labor.
  • Don’t do what I did and forget to switch playlists when your baby is born. Designate someone (your partner, doula, or whoever) to be in charge of switching it when the stage changes.
  • There will be some music that bothers you during labor, and you won’t know this until you get there, so just skip to the next selection and move on if this happens.
  • Practice with this music! This is what I did wrong the first time. This time around, I listened to my early labor playlist whenever I would nap, go to sleep at night, or just needed to relax for a few minutes. I listened to my active playlist a lot when cleaning and doing things I was moving around for. As I was listening, it helped me to fine tune things like the order of the music.
  • Really consider the lyrics of the song. I know a lot of people think it doesn’t matter, but certain things will stick out in your mind as you’re laboring. I was so inwardly focused on my breathing and coping with each contraction that I visually saw very little and most of what I remember are things I heard, a lot of which came from the music. Now when I hear the songs on my playlist, I think of my awesome birth experience!
Family of Four

Not my best picture, but it’s our first family photo as a family of four!

Click for more information about doulas and music therapy.

What music worked for you during labor?

2 comments

  1. We know that music reduces stress, so it is not out of character to employ music during labor.
    There are two issues, though- one, you may need a private room, because your music is another’s noise (and may not be in concert with institutional policy).
    Second, you want to insure that the music you play will also be useful for your baby-to-be, since they are also affected by music they hear in utero.

    • Rachel says:

      Of course, you would definitely have to consider whether or not you have a roommate while you are in labor, but where I am located, I do not typically hear of laboring women sharing rooms with other laboring women. Maybe that is happening in other places, but not where I am located. And you are completely right in that the baby is affected by music they hear in utero and will, therefore, be affected by what is played in the delivery room. This is why I stress that the mother (and even the father) should actively choose the music. Even if a music therapist is helping a mother to do this, it is ultimately the mother’s decision what to put on the playlists. Only she knows what will help her throughout the process, and chances are, she will pick music she enjoys and music the baby has probably already heard her listen to.

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