Sound and Birth
The way we are born has an effect on our entire lives.
The circumstances surrounding the times before, during and immediately after birth can influence the way we grow up physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Sound therapy can prove to be very effective as a tool for both birth preparation and postpartum due to its deeply relaxing effect on the nervous system.
For some (probably many), pregnancy can be a time of difficulty at many levels. The body can go through various challenges and all sorts of emotions can be stirred up.
Having restorative tools at one’s disposal in this delicate time can help prepare for such a profound event. The soothing effect of sound healing tools such as tuning forks and singing bowls can be of precious help in calming and stabilising the nervous system* and promoting feelings of safety and confidence.
During the actual birth, using vocal toning to accompany the necessary physical movements is also a powerful way of supporting one’s process.
After the birth, helping the nervous system settle into its parasympathetic response is a valuable support when the production of certain hormones is fundamental for the bonding process.
Sound can be used to positively affect both mother and child.
Sound affects us in many ways and, when it comes to using it in the field of pregnancy and birth, the benefits can be shared by the mother and the baby at the same time because the sense of hearing is already functioning while still in utero.
Acoustic developmental programming, as it is called by researchers, is something that the embryos of many animal species rely upon. It is an intelligent way that nature has created to help us learn about our environment before we are even born.
For instance, we learn to recognise the voice of our mothers above all others, a fairly important piece of information for a little being who’s going to be totally dependent on that adult for years to come.
I believe that we are also capable of learning the meaning of certain sounds or acoustic environments based on the mother’s reaction to them. If a pregnant woman is relaxed in a certain environment, this will be reflected in one of the body’s main internal communication system: the endocrine system (hormones).
If, on the other hand, a woman is stressed, scared or alarmed by (or while being simultaneously exposed to) certain sounds, the consequent release of stress hormones can create a neurological imprinting on the foetus, signalling that certain sounds mean danger.
Like everything else that nature designs, it is a survival tool. After all, isn’t it better to be born with some clues about what we are going to be facing?
I have a personal example of this mechanism, although not related to survival.
I was born and raised in Rome, Italy, to Italian parents, and did not travel outside the country until I was in my late twenties. However, I’ve always had a tendency to learn, and subsequently speak, the English language quite easily. I remember being the top of my class in that subject in middle school for, apparently, no reason.
Now, my mother used to work full time at Rome’s international airport, thus having to speak English often during her working hours. Could it be that I ended up picking up on the sound of the language as she went to work while pregnant? To me, that seems to be the only explanation for a tendency that, otherwise, appears to have come out of nowhere. Especially seeing as I haven’t shown a particular talent for other languages.
If the mother to be were to listen to specific music in order to relax and centre herself, it is possible that the child could be born with a positive imprinting towards that same music. There could be an association between the sounds and the hormones related to feelings of peace, calm and safety. So the same music could potentially be used to elicit such feelings in the baby after birth*.
The same goes for lullabies, whose effects are even more profound since they involve the human voice. Certain melodies could be used to communicate a sense of safety to the child while still in the womb, and then later, after birth, they can help the baby resonate with positive feelings.
Birth and society
By being exposed to and collaborating with my wife Jaguar’s lifelong involvement in the field of feminine health, pregnancy and birth, I have come to understand how the way we treat birth as a society influences the development of society itself.
In an extreme simplification, we can conjecture that harsh conditions around birth can create harsh and disconnected human beings, while gentle and nourishing conditions can create empathic and connected human beings.
A traumatic birth can have long lasting, even lifelong effects on a person and it is important to realise that “traumatic” does not mean only severe, life-threatening instances. For the greatly vulnerable and delicate being that a new born is, even just being born in a cold room with bright lights can be traumatic. Transitioning from the warm, dark protection of the mother’s womb to a cold environment where we are suddenly and roughly handled by strangers may be enough for the most sensitive of us to create existential fears.
And that’s a good birth, by the hospital’s standards. And who would normally disagree? If both the mother and the child are safe and in good health, that’s already a blessing!
Of course, nobody can protect us from the intensity of life itself. And birth is, in fact, an intense transition where so many things can go wrong even in our day and age. But we can try to make the transition as safe as possible by taking good care of at least all the aspects that are under our control (i.e. the quality of the environment or the level of intervention). And by remembering that the conditions for a good birth are not only met by checking the lists of standard medical procedures.
To put things into perspective around the safe handling of new-born babies, it is interesting to remember, as an example, that as late as the 1980s it was widely accepted that neonates do not feel pain due to an underdeveloped nervous system. Routinely, therefore, they were not administered anaesthetics for invasive procedures.
Like with many other aspects of modern science and medicine, sometimes one has to wonder how different things could be if we would not so often overlook the forest of our common sense to focus on the tree of specialised scientific research.
Maybe the peaceful world we all dream of starts by protecting the field of birth from an overly medicalised approach that so often disregards instincts. With all the focus going to reading machines and test results, the emotional wellbeing of the woman giving birth (and the baby being born) and quality of the surrounding space is too often eclipsed.
A thoughtful choice of soothing sounds before, during and after birth could well be a sensible and much needed step in that direction.
“If we want to find safe alternatives to obstetrics, we must rediscover midwifery. To rediscover midwifery is the same as giving back childbirth to women. And imagine the future if surgical teams were at the service of the midwives and the women instead of controlling them.”
– Michel Odent
Copyright 2017/23 - Simone Vitale