Sound Body, Sound Birth

August 4, 2013 at 12:31 am

Before my most recent birth, I made a list of “Hopes for next time.” I outlined the ways I hoped to make my fourth birth even better than the previous three. (Most of the items on my list didn’t happen. Oh well.) My first pregnancy was the beginning of my childbirth obsession, but I had no idea back then just how deep the things-to-learn-about-birthing “rabbit hole” was going to go. Now ten years down the road, it goes deeper still.

If I were to write another “Hopes for next time” post, I have another item I’d now be putting at the top of my list: singing.

 Over the past several months, I’ve been learning a lot. One of the topics I’ve been studying pretty intensively is music’s healing power, and even more so the power of using our voices in song. For nearly two weeks now I’ve also been putting my newfound knowledge into practice. Through singing songs and mantras for a set period of time immediately after waking each morning, I’ve seen first-hand how healing and energizing sound can be.

What happens when you use your voice as a sound instrument?

* Your heart rate relaxes and decreases.
* Your blood pressure decreases.
* Your stress hormones decrease.
* Your melatonin output increases.
* Your lymphatic circulation increases (which eliminates more toxins, waste, pathogens, and dead/abnormal cells from your body).
* Your body enhances the release of endorphins.
* Your immune system function improves.
* Your body produces more interleukin-1 (enhancing your resistance to infection among other things).

(Source: Meditation as Medicine, p. 114)

Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa shared the following remarkable experiment in his book, Meditation as Medicine:

Human cells respond in remarkable ways to sound. . . . Cancer cells were exposed for 21 minutes to the sound vibrations of various musical instruments, and to a human voice. As more notes and tones were added, the cancer cells began to destabilize and disintegrate. The most effective sound against the cancer cells was a human voice, singing a musical scale. When applied to healthy cells, though, sound vibration appears to have positive effects. Research has shown that healthy cells exhibit, among other effects, improved oxygen metabolism when exposed to sound (p. 114).

Another remarkable story is shared by Don Campbell in his book The Mozart Effect. One of Mr. Campbell’s vocal training students was a professional musician and performer named Celia. A few days after beginning to work with him, doctors discovered that she had a hemangioma brain tumor for which she endured a five-hour operation. Afterward, she astonished the hospital staff:

Unlike other patients, she did not appear to be experiencing discomfort after the surgery. In fact, the neurological ward had never had such a peaceful craniotomy patient. To what, the nurse asked Celia, did she attribute her remarkable calm? Celia recalled that, as soon as she had regained consciousness, she had hummed continuously. “I tone and chant,” she said, to the surprise of the nurse and her doctor, “and that keeps my brain intact.” Celia declined medication for pain, claiming to not have any. Finally, she agreed to take Advil, but only to reduce the swelling. The proud surgeon released her from the hospital a few days later, amazed at her recovery (p. 93).

When I saw this story, I immediately remembered a couple of YouTube videos from a few years ago (see HERE and HERE) depicting women singing while in the final stages of labor. With everything I’ve been learning about sound, it all clicked together in my mind. As we use our voices to sing or chant, our stress hormones decrease, our oxytocin and melatonin levels increase (<—melatonin and oxytocin synergize to improve uterine function and promote relaxation), and our endorphin and natural opiate levels rise to significantly reduce our pain levels. That is some childbirth awesomesauce, people.

These studies add more weight to the theory that vocalization and music can improve childbirth and reduce pain:

  • “Anesthesiologists report that the levels of stress hormones in the blood declines significantly in those listening to relaxing, ambient music–in some cases replacing the need for medication” (The Mozart Effect, p. 72).
  • “Avram Goldstein found that half of his subjects experienced euphoria while listening to music. The healing chemicals created . . . enable the body to create its own anesthetic. . . the result of endorphin release by the pituitary gland” (The Mozart Effect, p. 71).
  • “A music therapy study in Austin, Texas . . . found that half of the expectant mothers who listened to music during childbirth did not require anesthesia” (The Mozart Effect, p. 71).
  • “The findings support that music listening is an acceptable and non-medical coping strategy for labouring women. Especially, apply in reducing the pain and anxiety for women who are at the early phase of labour” (Source).
  • “Findings revealed that those in the music group had statistically significant reduction in reported pain levels compared to those in the non-music group” (Source).
  • “Music intervention can relieve pain, speed up labor process, and decrease Cesarean section rate” (Source).
  • “There is a physiologic connection between the vocal cords, the respiratory diaphragm, and the perineum. Vocal toning enhances that relationship and help women achieve focus and relaxation during labor. Of participants who were taught toning in pregnancy, 86% used it in labor. 61% found it helpful in dealing with pain, 42% indicated it promoted relaxation, and 50% said it helped them stay focused” (Source, Source, Source).

I’ve had music playing in the background in both of my home births, and I’ve certainly used my vocal chords to produce moans and wails (the “birth song“), but I’ve never chosen a word to chant or a melody to sing.

One of the things I’ve been learning about sound and healing is that certain sounds are more beneficial to the mind/body/spirit than others. Some languages utilize more pure vowel sounds, and those pure vowel sounds are powerful. That’s one reason why yogis often chant in Sanskrit or Gurmukhi as opposed to English. Hebrew and Latin are also great for sound healing. The more loose and long you can keep your mouth and jaw in labor, the better. As the beloved Ina May Gaskin teaches us: “Whatever your lips up here are doing, that’s what your lips down there are doing.”

If I ever give birth again, these are some of the songs and mantras I want to utilize as I labor:

If you want to read more cool birth stories and find more resources on using sound to improve your birth experience, here are some sites to explore:

Soundbirth: Sing Your Baby to You, birth story by Nicole Lloyd
Singing through the pain barrier,” birth story from BBC News
A diaphragm powered by an ocean wave: how singing through labor made me epic,” birth story by Katie Swindler
Vocal Toning: Good for Baby and Good for You,” by Dielle Ciesco
Vocal Toning for Childbirth,” from Better Childbirth Outcomes
I Need Thee Every Hour: Music and Birth,” birth story from The Gift of Giving Life

Have you used your voice as a natural anesthetic? Please share your stories!