There are numerous ways to help manage pain during labor and delivery. From breathing and medication, to acupressure and yoga, there is no "one size fits all" pain management plan for laboring people. Even visualization techniques for labor can all help someone regulate the unpleasantries of childbirth. Romper spoke with several doulas and birth educations, as well as moms who swear by visualization, to better understand this technique and how it might benefit laboring parents.
“When you're planning an unmedicated birth, I find that (visualization) can really be helpful to stay ‘in’ your body during contractions, as well as allowing the body to experience full and deep relaxation between contractions,” Erika Davis, a birth and postpartum doula and childbirth educator in Tacoma, Washington, tells Romper. Davis recommends the books HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method (Amazon, $17.55) and Mindful Birthing: Training the Mind, Body, and Heart for Childbirth and Beyond (Amazon, $12.98), as they cover many techniques that can be helpful during childbirth.
“It's been my experience that birthing people who have a good grasp on breathing and visualization techniques sort of go into ‘labor land’ where they seem to everyone around them that they're not in labor," Davis says, "because they're not doing the television screaming and cussing situation."
A 2016 study published in the journal BMJ Open, found that complementary therapies, including visualization, breathing, and facilitated partner support, can actually reduce the rate of epidural use, as well as the rates of Caesarean sections, perineal trauma, and even the length of the second stage of labor. Visualization isn't just beneficial for labor and delivery. A 2010 study published in Cancer Nursing, an international journal for cancer care, found that visualization can be helpful for cancer patients, and Dr. Harry E. Stanton, Ph.D., a Fellow of the Australian Society of Hypnosis, a Fellow of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, and a member of the Australian Psychological Society with over 35 years experience in the practice of clinical psychology and hypnotherapy, writes that visualization can assist individuals struggling with insomnia.
Keriann Filippi, 35, of Greenwood Village, Colorado, tells Romper that visualization helped her deal with painful contractions after she was induced with pitocin during her first delivery.
One client of mine imagined her contractions as super hot water in a Hawaiian hot spring. That helped her breathe and ease into the sensation every time it returned.
“My cramps were hell from the get go,” Filippi says, who was determined to deliver without medication. After eight and a half hours of labor, though, she nearly gave up. That’s when she says she closed her eyes and imagined water lapping a shore to help her relax through her contractions.
“I swear to all the gods that I had an out of body experience. I saw myself floating on the waves and felt this immense calm. I couldn’t believe it,” Filippi says.
Liza Maltz, a New York City-based birth and postpartum doula and certified lactation specialist at Birth Your Own Way, says she frequently uses water with her clients, both for sound and visualization.
“I ask them to picture themselves in the ocean up to their chest, at that point when the waves are coming. If you are loose and hop up and flow with the wave, you work with it. If you tense up, it can knock you down. That is a lot like birth,” Maltz tells Romper.
Megan Davidson, a Brooklyn-based labor and postpartum doula, says, for some people, visualization can "offer a strong distraction from a feeling or transformation of that feeling."
I spent a lot of time looking at open lotus blossoms and visualizing a peony go from a tight bud to a massive bloom.
“One client of mine imagined her contractions as super hot water in a Hawaiian hot spring. That helped her breathe and ease into the sensation every time it returned,” Davidson, says who is also the author of Your Birth Plan (Amazon, $19.95), a book that helps parents-to-be navigate all the choices they have surrounding childbirth.
“Other people have visualized waves on the ocean and imagined themselves riding over the waves, floating on top of the feeling," Davidson continues. "If these types of visualizations, or other sensations or situations, resonate with your coping style, then this might be a highly effective tool."
Carrie Murphy, a New Orleans-based doula who has attended over 60 births in three different states over the past seven years, says the key to getting through labor is having multiple coping strategies to aid in you navigating the overall experience.
“Visualization is certainly one of them! It doesn’t have to be complicated, either: simply imagining the pain going out of your body like a vapor when you breathe out, or the contraction as a wave that rises and falls rhythmically, or yourself, at the end of labor, cuddled up with your newborn, can be effective,” Murphy tells Romper.
Murphy suggests that pregnant people spend time during their pregnancy to come up with calming, motivating things to visualize that personally resonates with them. She’s also a fan of the GentleBirth app, which can help with mindfulness, hypnosis, breathing techniques, and affirmations.
Yet another visualization technique involves seeing your body opening up, much like your cervix opens and vaginal canal widens during childbirth.
When it comes to the transformative experience of childbirth, the best thing to do is to use all the tools in your toolbox to ensure the smoothest transition possible.
“One of my favorite visualizations techniques...is to use the image of a flower opening, spiral or concentric circles growing larger," Deena Blumenfeld of Shining Light Prenatal Education, and author of Birth Flow: Simple Movements and Gentle Touch to Relieve Pain and Speed Labor for a Graceful and Confident Experience(Amazon, $24.99), tells Romper. "It’s a good way for laboring people to envision what their cervix needs to do to open and allow baby passage through."
Blumenfeld tells Romper that she uses a lot of "gate imagery" with her clients. “We have many gates to go through to become parents," she says. "Some are easy to open, others take work and we may need help with the door."
Jen Mallia, Mother of two and a former editor of BirthISSUES Magazine, tells Romper that she used a similar technique when she gave birth to her second child. “I spent a lot of time looking at open lotus blossoms and visualizing a peony go from a tight bud to a massive bloom," she says. "He practically fell out of me, so I think it worked."
Blumenfeld says that another effective technique is a rather tried-and-true one: imagining yourself in your “happy place.”
“Mundane things like that give us a sense of safety and comfort. The simpler the visualization, the better," she says. "It always helps to practice during your pregnancy. With practice, it will be easier to drop in to the visualization as needed in labor."
At the end of the day, the most important thing is to choose a technique that works best for you. When I was in labor, what helped me most was visualizing the moment when I would finally hold my baby in my arms, and to picture him growing up. Every pregnant person has to figure out what will work for them, and some techniques that work perfectly for some might be wholly ineffective for others. When it comes to the transformative experience of childbirth, the best thing to do is to use all the tools in your toolbox to ensure the smoothest transition possible.
“What works for each person is different,” Davidson says. "And tapping into what works for you is the best form of labor preparation!”