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Childbirth and Music: What’s the Big Deal?

September 6, 2017
Heidi Lengel, birth & bereavement Doula, board certified music therapist, and owner and founder of Fulheart Family Support, shares her thoughts on the recent “Birthing Playlist” from Spotify that recently blew up on social media. Childbirth and music can go hand in hand, but a birthing play list is a personal and impactful tool for birthing women.

Bones sinking like stones
All that we’ve fought for
Homes, places we’ve grown
All of us are done for.

These are words to a song on Spotify’s “Birthing Playlist”. Even today, the internet is still buzzing with delight at this “new” technique for using music during labor.

Ummmm, WHAT? That song is supposed to make me feel good?

As a board certified music therapist, professional counselor, and certified birth & bereavement doula who works directly with birthing women, I have to tell you – I was excited when Spotify acknowledged how meaningful music can be. I agree with the sentiment shared by Dr. Mortiz: “music strongly influences our central nervous system’s limbic system which manages our memories, emotions, and how we deal with fear and pain. It makes sense that women would turn to music during childbirth as a source of comfort and strength”. Dr. Gino Pecoraro also points out that music “helps them relinquish control…you have to during this process and the music can take over and help that to happen because it helps them calm down”.

I can remember many times I’ve witnessed, firsthand, music’s amazing ability to provide great comfort, strength, and encouragement to women in labor. However, my excitement quickly gave way to disappointment as I listened to some of the songs.

Why? Isn’t all music created equal? How could music possibly harm a Mom or baby throughout labor? What’s so wrong with using music to ‘get pumped up’ during birth? Here are some of the reasons why music needs to be used with care and discernment during birth.

~ Birth: it’s (wonderfully) complicated ~

The emotional & physical needs of women vary greatly from the early moments of labor all the way to the first few hours of a baby’s life. A woman’s energy level can range from ‘I don’t have anything left to give’ to ‘let’s do this- now!” in a matter of seconds. Pre-existing physical conditions can impact a laboring woman’s stamina and movements as labor progresses. Women experience feelings of elation and strength, while sometimes also feeling weak and despondent. Moreover, a woman’s mental health, exposure to stress and trauma, and support system can influence the course of labor.

But seriously, does music really impact birthing women that much?

Yes, it does. And let’s be clear about something – there is a difference between listening to music and receiving music therapy from a qualified professional. We might all enjoy listening to music from time to time, but music therapy goes beyond that: music therapists are trained to use music expressly for therapeutic purposes, and must follow rigorous standards of practice, clinical care, and ethical guidelines.

In fact, there are some amazing studies that show how music therapy can influence pregnancy, labor, and birth. Browning’s 2001 study of music therapy in childbirth showed music therapy has the potential to make women feel more relaxed and in control- feelings which can directly inhibit the release of stress hormones like cortisol. Liu, Chang, and Chen (2010) discovered music therapy significantly lowers pain and anxiety during the latent (early) phase of labor. Hanser (1983) also found that music therapy lowered pain responses, increased concentration, and facilitated helpful breathing behaviors during labor. However, it is impossible to predict how one single playlist could support the complex needs of every woman, in every stage of labor. Just as important, one can’t predict how each of the songs suggested in Spotify’s playlist could impact physiological functions such as lowering blood pressure, increasing oxygen levels, and stablizing heart rate – all wonderful goals for birthing women. Music therapist Beth Hardy of Heart Tones Doula discusses the importance of how music therapy guides the body and mind during labor:

“Songs should flow easily from one to the next, and there should not be a lot of variance within a single playlist. That is one reason why Spotify’s birth playlist may not work for many women – not only is it not personalized to fit each woman’s preferences, but the songs are from a variety of genres and have different tempos. When songs flow effortlessly from one to the next, the birthing mother’s mind can relax into a trance-like state, and if there are dramatic changes from song to song she can be jolted back into her conscious mind.”

But if music can help people, what’s the problem?

So, here’s the thing. Ask any qualified music therapist, and they will tell you: Music is VERY powerful, and sometimes it can have negative effects.

Dr. Brian Abrams put it best when he said, “It’s inaccurate to say music is innocuous. Music is a powerful medium and, as such, has the potential to help as well as harm, and is therefore not strictly benign. Moreover, it is inaccurate to call music non-invasive. Music penetrates us.”  In my practice alone, I can think of many times when women have specifically requested that certain songs (or even entire genres of music) not be played because of extremely difficult (often times traumatic) memories associated with them.

Music therapist and researcher Suzanne Hanser discussed how when she used music during the birth of her stillborn baby; she discovered music had the ability to comfort her: “As labor progressed, the rhythm of the music guided my breathing and paced the next several hours. The stability of an ongoing beat in Vivaldi’s chamber music and Bach’s keyboard works kept me breathing in their strict tempi, getting me through contraction after contraction, measure by measure. During a long and difficult transition stage of labor, Prokofiev’s chaotic and dissonant piano concerto matched my torment and somehow, curiously, I felt empathy with the music.”

At the same time, she also realized it held potentially negative outcomes when offered to someone else experiencing distress: “…She revealed that the music had, indeed, provided some distraction and positive mood changes during the next two sessions. But, then at home, she began to experience nausea whenever she played these musical selections. Horrified, I recognized that this process was unwittingly conditioning a distressing response to this music. I needed to study the behavioral conditioning literature, and consult with fellow clinicians and researchers. My review of the development of classical and respondent conditioning paradigms enlightened me on these unexpected outcomes. Subsequently, I took care to pair music with relaxing effects in order to condition positive effects prior to experiencing any pain or trauma.”

Newborn feet, black and white close-up shot

Please, let’s not forget about the baby in all of this.

Babies can hear it all, y’all. As early as 18 weeks, they can begin to hear sound. At 25-26 weeks, those little cuties can respond to sound. They can hear the music you bring to your birth and sense how it impacts your mood. Discoveries are being made every day about how babies are able to recall their birth memories. They are incredibly sensitive and responsive to the sounds they hear. The music we play during labor, birth, and the moments afterwards have a profound impact on a baby’s neurological development. To give an example, the cello suite recommend on the Spotify playlist may actually be too stimulating for a newborn who is busy regulating their breathing, becoming connected to Mom, and learning how to nurse. “Classical music isn’t always good?” you gasp? Yes, even classical music is not always the best choice for your baby depending on the moment.

Oh no! Now I don’t know WHAT music to listen to!

Have you ever heard a woman say she made playlists for labor and then hated them? It’s probably because she didn’t have the support of a music therapist guiding her throughout pregnancy and birth. But have no fear. There are an increasing number of music therapists specializing in music therapy assisted childbirth. Music therapist and doula Kate Taylor of Creative Childbirth Concepts provides these helpful suggestions:

  • There IS a place in labor for slow and mellow music as well as music with a strong tempo.
  • There ARE many reasons to use music with lyrics that make a women feel beautiful and connected to her birthing partner (Hello, oxytocin!).
  • Instrumental music IS often a preferred selection for relaxation and bonding, so it too has it’s place in a birth plan.
  • There IS a place for comforting and familiar music that puts mom at ease from the fear and hard work of labor.
  • There IS a science behind how music impacts the birthing mother’s limbic system (and more!)

In the end…do your research. Would you ask someone who is not a qualified birth professional to deliver your baby? I didn’t think so. Then don’t rely on musical recommendations for birth from someone who is not a qualified music therapist.

Look for a board certified music therapist near you who is trained to support you during pregnancy and birth. Empower yourself by creating a knowledgeable team of people you know and trust. At Fulheart Family Support, we offer music therapy assisted childbirth services throughout Philadelphia as well as online “Birth Melodies” consultation services that enable you to choose the best music to for you and your birth.

No matter what anyone tells you, make the best possible choices for you and then take a deep breath- your baby can’t wait to meet you.


Heidi-LengelpicHeidi Lengel, MMT, MT-BC, is the founder and owner of Fulheart Family Support. A board certified music therapist, professional counselor, and certified birth & bereavement doula, she is also the Perinatal Wellness Coordinator at The Postpartum Stress Center, Vice President of The Philadelphia Maternity Network, blogger for A Child Grows in Philadelphia, a childbirth educator, and a strong advocate for perinatal wellness in her community. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter to learn more about her passion for healthier birth and babies. For more info, call 504-434-BABY or email info@fulheartfamilysupport.com.