“Partner’s Touch Reduces Pain For Laboring Person!”
In a recent study published in Nature, it was discovered that a partner’s touch resulted in something the researchers termed, “physiological coupling.” The same study also found that empathetic touch from the partner contributed to an analgesic effect via their partner’s autonomic nervous system.
In other words, when a partner held the hand of the person they cared for and a pain stimulus was activated, the couple would begin to synchronize their breathing and heart rate patterns, otherwise known as physiological coupling. In addition, the person would report that their pain lessened while holding hands with their partner. If they were sitting next to one another, but not holding hands, their pain level would not be affected.
Obviously, this has implications for the families I teach, which is why I joke about this study being big news and something I didn’t already know about. But it’s important to share this news far and wide, because even though I’ve been preaching it for close to 20 years – “Everything you do for your partner while they’re in labor makes a difference! Even if all you do is hold their hand!” – partners still don’t seem to believe it!
Labor is not just something that a birthing person experiences. Their partner experiences labor too, just in a very different way. For far too long, we’ve either diminished or ignored the partner’s experience of labor – to everyone’s detriment.
I’ve mentioned many times before that I have a soft spot in my heart for the partner’s experience. I realize that it makes sense to pay close attention to how a pregnant person experiences and moves through pregnancy, labor and birth. But if we’re not paying equal attention to their partner’s experience, we’re not setting this new family up for success. In fact, we might be doing the exact opposite.
I spend a lot of time discussing the second stage of labor (pushing and delivery of the baby) using my uterus and baby doll props to share what to expect and what it will look like from the partner’s perspective. At this point, the nurses and provider have their attention focused on the laboring person and baby – with good reason. They need to be aware of any changes in the heart rate as the baby moves through the birth canal, and they need to remain alert as the baby’s shoulders make their way through the birthing person’s pelvis.
But not enough attention is being paid to what the partner experiences during this critical time. Partners need to know what a newborn baby really looks like and what the process entails so that the moment their baby enters the world it’s a moment full of joy for the whole family! When we forget about the partner’s experience, and they have no idea what to expect, that moment can result in a partner frozen with fear and in a state of shock at what they’re seeing and what’s happening – and this can negatively impact their transition as a new parent in a significant way.
Likewise, if partners don’t realize the importance their words, actions and touch can have on the laboring person’s experience, many partners will freeze up and feel helpless as they witness the power and intensity of labor and birth. They may end up feeling as if their efforts and suggestions for comfort measures are without any effect. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth!
Sometimes I use a marathon analogy to discuss how important the efforts of the partner can be in helping a person through labor and birth.
Imagine you’re running your first marathon. You’ve heard from friends and family how challenging it can be, but you’ve also heard about all of the “extras” along the race route that will help you make it across the finish line: the excitement and camaraderie of other runners, the music blaring at checkpoints, the mileage post signs marking your progress, the water stations providing hydration, snacking on energy-packed gummies, reading signs of encouragement from strangers, and awaiting you at the finish line, cheering crowds and some of the best peanut butter sandwiches and chocolate milk you’ve ever tasted! Now, these “extras” might not seem very important – until we take them all away.
What if I painted a very different picture of your marathon experience?
You’re told to stand at the starting line alone and when the gun goes off, run for 26.2 miles toward the finish line with nothing to help you along the way – no water stations, no music, no snacks, no encouraging crowds, no one waiting for you at the finish line… nothing.
The difference between the first scenario and the second is stark. Without all of those “extras” even the experienced marathon veteran would have a hard time completing the race. Let alone, crossing the finish line with even a hint of a smile.
So it is that every little thing a partner does to make the laboring person more comfortable matters, and it matters immensely. Every sip of water offered, every new position suggested, every word of encouragement, every reminder to breathe, every single touch, provides comfort to the laboring person. And partners need to know this and believe in the power that their undivided attention and connection can bring to their laboring partner.
I’m reminded of this when I think back to being in labor with my first many, many years ago…
I had two doulas – one for me, and one for my husband! I came prepared with a full team of support for this birth. They all worked so hard to support me in what ended up being a long labor that began, as most labors do, in the wee hours of the morning. I wasn’t the only one exhausted some 20 hours into the experience – my husband had been awake and working hard just as long as I’d been. And he was getting tired.
I remember hearing my two doulas talking in a stage whisper with my husband: “Go ahead and lie down. Try to get a quick nap in now before the really intense labor begins. We’re both here – we can take care of her.”
A statement that was completely true! One of my doulas was an L&D nurse (soon-to-be-midwife) and the other was my best friend who knew my husband and me almost as well as we knew ourselves! They were more than capable of helping me through contractions, which up to this point I’d been handling really well.
Upon their urging, my husband walked about three feet away and lay down on the daybed in the labor and delivery room. And then strangest thing happened – I completely lost my rhythm and my ability to breathe through contractions! It was as though I’d lost my way, somehow. The next handful of contractions felt incredibly painful to me. So much so, that I cried out in anguish which woke my husband up and he hurried to my side and held my hand once more. And then, just as quickly, I found my rhythm, my breathing returned, and I was able to continue and handle my contractions, until I gave birth several hours later.
I know from talking with my husband and other partners about their own experiences how challenging it is to watch the person you love go through labor and birth. It pulls strongly on the heartstrings and can leave partners feeling incredibly helpless to do anything that will be effective in increasing their partner’s comfort level.
But here’s why I think the findings from this latest study are so important: it’s the feeling of shared empathy between the laboring person and their partner that causes the physiological coupling and analgesic effect that help a person when they’re experiencing pain.
That’s why I’ve always told the partners in my classes that even if they hired an army of the world’s greatest labor doulas, if the partner provides the laboring person with their unwavering, focused and empathetic attention during the labor, they will tell everyone that they could not have made it through without their partner – even if all they did was hold their hand!
I love it when someone else does the research and publishes findings that support what I’ve been teaching my families for the past twenty+ years!
Because, let’s face it… Some partners in my classes may think that I’m just trying to make them feel better or elevate their role in the birth experience. (Which is exactly what I’m trying to do, by the way!)
But I’ve also known forever that empathetic touch – combined with all of the other wonderful comfort measures partners learn in our time together – really can help a laboring person when they need it the most.
And now, I have the science to prove it.
Can you relate to this post as a laboring person? Did your partner’s touch (among other things) actually make labor and birth easier for you? What about partners – have you felt helpless in labor? Does this information about how your words, actions and touch really helped them through labor and birth make you feel any better? Let me know your thoughts. I love hearing from you!