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Can Mindfulness Ease Childbirth Pain? A Neuroscientist Says Yes

Is mindfulness helpful for women and their partners during childbirth? We talked with neuroscientist Emiliana Simon-Thomas from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center about the transformative practice of mindful body scan meditation.

By
Jade Wu, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #284
pregnant meditation
The Quick And Dirty
  • Mindfulness means being grounded in the here and now, with a gentle and caring stance.
  • It can be practiced through a body scan, which means taking a mental journey through your physical body and purposefully paying attention using your senses. 
  • Mindfulness and body scan practice during pregnancy and childbirth has benefits for the birthing mother's, their partners, and the baby. 
  • This practice doesn't totally take away pain. However, it can make the birthing mom feel less anxious and more connected. 

We hear about mindfulness everywhere these days—in news articles and wellness magazines, at the doctor’s office, and on social media. We're bombarded with images of attractive, calm people bathed in sunlight, smiling as they sit cross-legged with their eyes serenely closed.

Doesn’t it look nice? If only it were so easy for those of us who aren't stock photography models to find bamboo forests—at just the right temperature, with nobody else around—in which to quietly practice daily meditation.

But maybe we don’t need perfect conditions to practice mindfulness. What if cultivating mindfulness were possible right here, right now? What if we could even do it during times of chaos and pain?

Mindfulness for pain management

Research has shown that even under extreme circumstances, like during childbirth, we can (and should) practice mindfulness. Of course, it won't totally ease pain or anxiety during childbirth—mindfulness isn't sorcery that can simply wave those away. But the practice of being grounded and mindful allows birthing parents (and their partners) to feel less fearful, more connected, more satisfied, more bonded, and even to have better postpartum recovery and better parenting in the long run.

The practice of being grounded and mindful allows birthing parents (and their partners) to feel less fearful, more connected, more satisfied, and more bonded.

To learn more about how mindfulness works in the context of childbirth, I spoke with Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the Science Director at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and a mother of three. Trained in neuroscience and social psychology, Emiliana oversees research fellowships, directs key science initiatives, and teaches the The Science of Happiness worldwide. She serves as an expert voice on the origins of well-being and the most promising strategies for increasing it individually, in relationships, and within organizations.

During our conversation, I learned a lot about mindfulness in childbirth and its benefits for my baby, my partner and me, and our future health and happiness as a family. To test it out, I'll be challenging myself to do body scan meditations in the weeks leading up to my first childbirth. Afterwards, Dr. Simon-Thomas will interview me about my hands-on experience on her podcast, The Science of Happiness. Stay tuned to see how it goes! 

Interview with Greater Good Science Center's Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas

As always, I encourage you to click the audio player above or listen on your favorite podcast platform to make the most of the interview. But if you're not able to listen, here's a paraphrased recap of our conversation.

What is mindfulness? Do you have to be able to clear your mind or have total control over your thoughts/feelings?

Mindfulness is described in two ways:

  1. A state or practice of purposefully attending to what's happening inside and out, right while the moment is happening, with a gentle, caring stance (not judging anything as good or bad, deserved or undeserved, etc.) or ... 
  2. An overall tendency to notice what is happening, inside and out, right as things are happening, again with a gentle, caring stance.

Thoughts about the past, future, and other hypotheticals tend to be disruptive. Attuning to thoughts and feelings in and about the moment as it's happening enables people to more readily embrace and productively utilize them.

I don't think mindfulness has anything to do with trying to clear your mind or control thoughts or feelings. Rather, when people practice mindfulness or increase their level of dispositional mindfulness, they also tend to, somewhat organically, experience more mental clarity and ease. When you practice mindfulness, thoughts that are not about anything currently happening tend to dissipate.

Thoughts about the past, future, and other hypotheticals tend to be disruptive. Attuning to thoughts and feelings in and about the moment as it's happening enables people to more readily embrace and productively utilize them. Mindfulness can help you recover from your difficult thoughts and feelings more quickly or extend compassion to others more freely.

What is a body scan meditation? How is it different from other types of meditation like using imagery?

Body scan meditation is a form of mindfulness that involves direction—a mental journey. The idea is to, again, deliberately attend to what's happening inside (thoughts, sensations, feelings) and out (context, environment) in relation to the current moment as it occurs. As you do so, gently direct awareness to specific parts of the body.

The focus on the body is unique from other imagery-based meditations because it anchors the experience in something physically present and available, right in every moment.

Often, meditation guides will suggest focusing on parts of the nose or mouth where your breath is going in and out, the corresponding movements of your chest and stomach. Then, progress to other areas of the body that are in contact with something physical like the legs on a chair. Next, follow a sequence of body areas from head to toe.

The focus on the body is unique from other imagery-based meditations because it fosters increased awareness of the body, and familiarity with it's parts and functions. It anchors the experience in something physically present and available, right in every moment.

How might mindfulness be applied to preparing for childbirth? When someone is in labor and having painful contractions, wouldn't they want to be distracted and be in their "happy place" instead of being fully in their painful body?

When it comes to intense physical pain and related emotional experiences, for some lucky people, distraction may be powerful enough to eliminate the sensations of pain and steer thoughts away from worry and panic about the pain (e.g., Is this pain life-threatening? Will it last indefinitely? Can anyone do anything to make this pain go away? Why am I feeling this?)

Focusing on just this moment, and something tangible and physical in this moment, steers you away from those worrying thoughts that are, in many ways, the most unpleasant part of pain.

For most people, however, there's a threshold beyond which distraction won't be sufficient. So, go ahead, do the "happy place" daydreaming while it works, but then when it doesn't, mindfulness—particularly body scan meditation—is an interesting option. Why? because again, focusing on just this moment, and something tangible and physical in this moment, steers you away from those worrying thoughts that are, in many ways, the most unpleasant part of pain. Instead, by focusing right on the part of the body that hurts—and not dwelling on why, how long, how bad, am I gonna die—the moment of hurt passes, and then you are onto the next moment. Your thoughts become more like "This is my body doing it's thing, doing what it must for this miraculous outcome, and, it's temporary."

In childbirth, body mindfulness is just now, and then the next now, and the next now, and then—after a bunch of those nows that nobody is counting—it's over and there's a baby!

Is there any scientific evidence to support the usefulness of mindfulness in pregnancy and childbirth?

Yes, lots. More mindful mothers (and fathers) have less anxiety about childbirth, lower rates of preterm labor, less fear and pain during childbirth, lower rates of postpartum depression, more success at attachment parenting ( which applies for partners and fathers, too), and less marital difficulty post-children.   

It sounds like mindfulness is useful for partners and fathers, too. Should they also actively practice mindfulness during a birth?

Yes. It's arguably quite hard to witness your loved on experiencing the pain of childbirth and to trust one's own ability to be of support in those dire moments. When partners can practice mindfulness also, they can provide more stable, grounded support that matches the needs of the person giving birth. 

Any other advice to expectant parents for cultivating mindfulness?

Let mindfulness help with surrender and love. Childbirth is the easy part—it only lasts a short time relative to decades of parenting, which will interrupt all of your plans, expectations, and preferences for how things could or should be. Mindfulness practices, like the body scan, enable you to give in to the experiences you're in, right when you're in them, to discover what is valuable right then and there, and leverage that insight to be the best, most loving person you can be. The other mental chitter-chatter often doesn't matter.

Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show.