Maternal Mental Heath

Music & Maternal Mental Health

Birth trauma can have a significant impact on those giving birth and their families, contributing to an increased likelihood of developing postpartum depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges, including birth related PTSD.

For Maternal Mental Health Day 2022, we wanted to highlight some of the ways that music can help to promote wellbeing during labour and birth, and also how you can use music in the first few weeks with a new baby to support emotional wellbeing as a new parent.

Listening to music has been shown to have significant effects on our brain, nervous system and hormone production, and many of us have strong emotional connections to music from certain periods of our lives. Many people will listen to music during pregnancy, birth and beyond for comfort or entertainment, but it can be difficult to know where to start when thinking about constructing a birth playlist.

Music & Physiology

Speed/tempo: When we really focus on music, it is quite natural for our breathing and heart rate to attune to the rhythm and timing of the music. With this in mind, we can think about what sort of music will help us to either feel more relaxed or more energised depending on what we need in the moment.

Volume/dynamics: There are definitely times where we want to listen to loud music, but during labour and birth - and when we have a new baby around - is probably not one of them! Keeping music and sounds as soft and calming as possible will help in maintaining a calm and supportive environment. Music has also been shown to reduce our perception of loud noises, so if giving birth in a noisy hospital environment, even having some calming music on in the background can help to reduce stress caused by random machine bleeps and other more irritating sounds.

Timbre/tone: The specific qualities of sound are an important mechanism for our survival, which is one of the reasons that babies develop hearing early on in our pregnancies, and that they have been shown to favour the voices of those that they hear while in utero. This means we all have different preferences when it comes to timbre and tone, and some of us may prefer the sounds of particular types of voices or musical instruments over others. Choosing music where you like the sounds is important, but also thinking about choosing music that is soft, low, and has human vocal qualities (rather than very electronic or synthesised sounds) can be a good starting point to maintain high levels of calm.

Predictability: One of music’s strengths when it comes to its ability to keep us feeling calm and supported, is its predictability. Labour and birth, as well as those first few weeks postpartum, are not the time to be experimental when it comes to music. Choosing familiar songs over new music will help you feel safer in your environment.

Music & Hormones

There are several hormones that are important to consider during labour and the postpartum period, and ways that you can use music to support these processes. We are going to focus on two key hormones: oxytocin and adrenaline. With all the music suggested here, it’s important to remember that it is less about the specific genre and more about your own music preferences and emotional responses to the music.

Oxytocin (the ‘love' hormone)

What does it do?

Oxytocin is the predominant hormone of birth. Both the baby and the birther’s levels of oxytocin increase to signal for labour to begin and continue until the baby is born. Beyond birth, oxytocin helps with milk production, bonding between the baby and their parents, lowers levels of anxiety, and can also decrease the risk of postpartum haemorrhage in both physiological and surgical births. Remaining calm can also help with decision making if the birth goes differently to how you expected.

What music helps?

Music that makes you feel calm, supported and loved. Think about songs that remind you of strong connections and positive memories of people you love, positive memories of your childhood, and songs that make you feel love towards yourself. Avoid songs that make you feel anxious or that trigger a negative response, and focus on calming music that helps you to regulate your breathing, especially during contractions, preparing for a surgical birth, and for relaxation if you feel high levels of anxiety after the baby is born.

A few suggestions to get you started:

  • I Giorni - Ludovico Einaudi
  • Venus, the Bringer of Peace - Gustav Holst (The Planets Suite)
  • Folding - Abimaro
  • The Luckiest - Ben Folds
  • Slow Hand - The Pointer Sisters
  • Hey Now - London Grammar
  • Heartbeats - José González
  • I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You - Elvis Presley
  • (Everything I Do) I Do It For You - Bryan Adams
  • Awake - Tycho
  • Sunrise - Norah Jones

Adrenaline & Noradrenaline (also known as epinephrine & norepinephrine, or the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ hormones)

What does it do?

These hormones are produced when we perceive a threat to our safety, and they actually inhibit oxytocin, which can lead to labour stalling or slowing down. However, during the late stages of birth, these hormones can provide a necessary surge of energy. If you feel yourself becoming very tired and your energy flagging, it can help to have some music selected ahead of time to give you that boost.

What music helps?

Remember that we’re not looking to activate an extreme stress response, so it’s important to continue to use music that is familiar and does not make you feel anxious - the key here is to think of songs that make you feel a little more energised to give you a little boost. Can you think of any songs that put an immediate smile on your face? Those are the kinds of songs that can be helpful, as well as music that is a little bit more upbeat, slightly faster paced and less immediately calming.

A few suggestions to get you started:

  • Your Body is a Wonderland - John Mayer
  • You Make My Dreams Come True - Hall & Oates
  • Panic Cord - Gabrielle Aplin
  • You Gotta Be - Des’ree
  • Send Me On My Way - Rusted Root
  • Kiss Me - Sixpence None The Richer
  • Rhiannon - Fleetwood Mac
  • Shut Up and Dance - Walk the Moon
  • You & Me Song - The Wannadies
  • The Zephyr Song - Red Hot Chilli Peppers
  • The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) - Simon & Garfunkel
  • I Feel Good - James Brown
  • Happy - Pharrell Williams

Music & Postpartum

Once the baby is born, there are many benefits of singing to your baby. These include helping with bonding, making you both feel safe, developing communication and speech skills, and supporting their awareness and attention skills. You don’t need anything fancy to do this, just your own voice. If you carried the baby during pregnancy, or were around during the pregnancy, the baby will already know your voice and will have a preference for it - even if you think you can’t sing! If your baby did not hear your voice during pregnancy, singing is a great way for them to become more familiar with it, and provides a very rich form of human connection that is important for their development when they are very young.

And you don’t just have to sing traditional lullabies - you can turn any song that you like (maybe some of the songs you liked during pregnancy) into a lullaby by singing it a little bit more slowly, softly and soothingly for your baby.

Music can also be used if you need a little bit of time on your own, something that can be difficult in the first few weeks with a new baby. If you have someone you can leave the baby with for 5 minutes, then use that time to switch off by listening to your favourite song - either calmly with your eyes closed, or dance around freely on your own. If you aren’t able to leave the baby with someone at a time where you feel like you need a break, try using headphones to protect the boundary of your space instead.

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