Noises During Labor — "I felt like a horse"
I was talking to one of my friends that is giving birth to her third baby in a few months and she was telling me about her last birthing experience. She told me that one of her family members who was present mentioned that she was really loud when she was in labor. My friend had felt frustrated by that comment because she felt that during labor, making noise really helped her cope with her contractions. Our conversation made me think a lot about how we have this perception that noise during labor means something negative - that you aren't "in control".
I recently listened to a podcast episode about birth and one of the comments the guest speaker made was about vocalizing during labor. The guest was a veterinarian and she said that as she labored she kept feeling as if she was a horse giving birth. I thought that was so awesome! She said that that visualization was really empowering (can't find the podcast, but if I do, I will link it). The guest on the podcast noticed that when she would make certain noises, her pelvic floor muscles relaxed and she felt more empowered.
Her comments reminded me of a section in Ina May's Guide to Childbirth:
"Let’s say you want some advice that might help you give birth, wherever that might be. My shortest answer is: let your monkey do it....
Letting the primate in you do the work of labor is a short way of saying not to let your over-busy mind interfere with the ancient wisdom of your body. To give you an idea of what I mean, here are some things monkeys and apes don’t do in labor that many women do - and that interfere with labor:
- Monkeys don’t think of technology as necessary to birth-giving.
- Monkeys don’t obsess about their bodies being inadequate.
- Monkeys don’t blame their condition on anyone else.
- Monkeys don’t do math about their dilation to speculate how long labor might take. (A typical mind sequence might be: it has taken me eight hours to get to 5 cm. That means it will take eight more hours to get to 10 or for full dilation.)
- Monkeys in labor get into the position that feels best, not the one they’re told to assume.
- Monkeys aren’t self-conscious about making noise, farting, or pooping during labor." (Ina May's Guide to Giving Birth, pg. 243)
I really appreciate what Ina May says - perhaps I am drawn to this example because it reminds me of the first birth I witnessed and served at. My dog Sabrina was pregnant and give birth to a litter of 10 puppies. It was amazing to be able to assist her because I saw that she followed her instincts. She moved often and wherever she wanted. We had built a birthing house for her, but she did not stay confined to the bed. She labored on her side, she swayed, she got out and walked around, she walked in circles. My mother and I were present as her assistants but I only remember being in absolute awe of how Sabrina was laboring and how she was listening to her body.
As a doula, I have attended many births and I have personally witnessed the beautiful change that comes over a laboring mother when she gets "into the zone" of birth. Where the laboring mother has figured out her movement, her breath slows and she finds her sound rhythm. Vocalizing can help a mother feel more connected to her body, relaxed, and empowered. With that said, not all vocalizations are the same. There is a difference between screeching and humming or roaring.
How often, to what intensity, and what types of sounds are made may depend on various things. When my first child was born, I was silent almost the entire way through until I reached the pushing stage. I started to screech because of the intensity and my doula reminded me (and helped my husband to remind me) "nice and looooooow. Loooooow, sloooooow." Her slow and deep vocalization exemplified what I needed to sound like and I was able to echo her low pitch. With my daughter, my labor was much shorter and incredibly intense and I felt more of a need to vocalize. I was so LOUD! I remember yelling, "Ay, yay, yay," and "Oooooh myyyyy." These weren't shrieking vocalizations though - while I felt the need to yell and roar these phrases out, they were low pitched and calm (well, some of them, ha! There were a few times I felt the need to screech but was reminded to do the lower pitch either by my husband or our midwife).
"The sounds that accomplish this [pelvis relaxation] best are the notes that come from as deep down in the body as possible, the ones that vibrate the entire chest. Even the woman who makes no sound as she gives birth can deliberately hold her mouth and throat in a loose, relaxed position as she pushes. If she holds her mouth and throat open rather than clenching her jaw or biting down, her perineum responds accordingly. Its muscle tissues instantaneously become more flexible and stretchy and thus more able to slip around the baby's head and body without tearing or being cut." (Ina May's Guide to Giving Birth, pg. 179)
So, what kind of sounds are best? Ina May shares:
"During the early years of my career, I developed another relaxation technique to help women keep their mouth and throat relaxed during labor. This is called “horse lips” or “raspberries.” When a person totally relaxes the lips and blows a good amount of air through them at considerable pressure softly flapping them together in the process, it is reminiscent of the soft, lips flapping sound of that horses make. I find that when women in labor attempt to make this sound (even if they don’t quite succeed), it significantly relaxes their mouth, throat, and, at the same time, their bottom (cervix and perineum). Women who have tried this during menstrual cramps have found it surprisingly helpful in alleviating pain. I also recommend it to the extremely constipated person." ((Ina May's Guide to Giving Birth, pg. 179)
When I worked as an assistant to a local midwife, one of the parts of a labor I loved the most was being part of the sound rhythm. Different moms all had their own movement and sound rhythm. I remember hearing moaning and groaning, humming, and phrases, like, “Oooooopen,” or “Cooooomme, baby, coooooome.” Sometimes the midwife would sing a labor song and sometimes we would follow the mother’s chant, working to follow her cues and stay with her.
One of the books I read as part of doula training had suggestions for what to do to support a laboring mother in feeling comfortable with being vocal:
“If the mom is crying out in a high-pitched wail, or it sounds like fear caught in the throat, she may be self-conscious or afraid of letting her pain show. Here’s what you can do to encourage her. Say softly, “What’s that sound? Make it a little louder… and longer so I can really hear the sound of birth…” or “That sounds good… It means the baby is coming soon. Make that sound deeper let it come from your belly” (sometimes it helps to model deeper, slower, moaning or chanting).
If the mother begins moaning or chanting in a rhythmical way, learn her sound and begin co-chanting, This can provide incredible validation and eliminate self-consciousness (especially in a hospital).
Let the sound emerge from the mother. Don’t tell her what sound to make or what to chant. Only one person at a time in the room should co-chant. When you co-chant, match her sound, intensity and volume as closely as possible. If you start before or after, or If you’re louder or quieter, it could throw off her concentration.” (Birthing From Within)
Practicing your breathing or meditation techniques can give you tools that you are comfortable using when you are in labor, so having sounds that you have practiced can help you as well. Ina May suggests practicing making noises when you are pooping, and while it might seem silly or at least unusual, try it. As one speaking from experience, chanting while pooping (I am totally laughing while I write this) can make you feel more connected with your body and therefore more empowered. Give it a try sometime. My own three year old grunts while he is pooping and he is the most efficient pooper in our house! Making noises while you are physically exerting yourself is actually a very normal behavior, but for some reason, there is a stigma around it, especially in labor, where women are sometimes being literally shamed because they were vocal. Humans naturally make noise when they are pooping, birthing, having sex, lifting something heavy, or preforming any sort of physical task that requires them to exert themselves. Imagine asking a world famous boxer or other athlete “please, can you be quiet? It looks like you are out of control when you are making those grunts or groans.” I recently watched a scene in a movie where the characters were kickboxing and wrestling. The two characters were groaning and grunting, and shouting. It was totally normal too. It would have been so weird if they had not made those noises. Think about a laboring mother as an athlete, someone who is pushing her body to new boundaries.
Ina May mentions in her book, Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, that the muscles in our pelvic floor echo or mirror the muscles of our face and mouth. If our tongue and mouth is tight, so will our cervix and vagina. If our facial muscles are loose, so will our pelvic floor muscles. If you are pregnant (or even if you aren’t), try this: sit down in a comfortable place and as you pay attention to your pelvic floor, try screaming. Then try taking a deep breath, closing your eyes, and chanting, or humming low. Try this in different positions, as well as alternating several different times. As you practice you may notice that your muscles become tight or relaxed with your sounds. Next time you are having sex, try making more low guttural sounds (if you don’t already). Next time you bend down to pick up something off the floor, make a groan. When you are doing yoga, instead of exhaling silently, shout!
Making noise while physically exerting ourselves is not weird, it's intuitive. Making vocalizations during labor can be a huge benefit to a laboring mother and it is important that her vocalizations are respected and normalized. Happy vocalizing!
Photos are shared with permission, taken by Becca McKinney Photography https://m.facebook.com/beccamckinneyphotography/. The mom and I are members of the same FB birth group and she had posted her maternity photography shoot, and I love the photos. She said that in the picture, her horse, Keira is also pregnant. Isn’t that so rad?!