Comfort Measures in Labor: Eye Contact
“The eyes are the windows into your soul” is an old cliche. But there may be a bit of truth to this saying.
“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light,” (Matthew 6:22)
“Your eye is the lamp of your body.” (Luke 11:34a)
“I will not set before my eyes
anything that is worthless.” (Psalm 101:3a)
“I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1-2)
“To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he has mercy upon us.” (Psalm 123:1-2)
Our eyes aid in communication; both in receiving messages and in expressing emotions. Our eyes also help us to focus our emotions, our determination, and strengthen our resolve. One form of focusing with our eyes comes in the form of eye contact with another individual.
We all know the importance of looking someone in the eye to show respect, we used eye contact to flirt with our spouse during the courting/dating phase, and we look eye to eye when playing with a baby. So, is eye contact useful in labor? Does it actually have any benefits or offer any comfort to the laboring woman?
How does eye contact effect a person?
In an article posted on Psychology Today entitled “The Secrets of Eye Contact Revealed,” Dr. Adrain Furnham wrote, “Where, when, and how we look at others are all part of the phenomenon of eye gaze, one of our most important and primitive means of communication. Gaze plays a crucial role in conversation. Looking at another person is a way of getting feedback on particular points. It is also used as a synchronizing signal. People tend to look up at the end of utterances: This gives them feedback and hands over the conversational baton. People also look up more at the end of grammatical breaks, but look away when hesitating, talking non-fluently, or thinking. There is often mutual eye contact during attempted interruptions, laughing, and when answering short questions.”
“The amount and type of eye gaze imparts a great deal of information. Pupil dilation, blink rates, direction of gaze, widening of the eyes all send very clear messages.” (Dr. Adrain Furnham)
Renata Savic, a psychologist, was quoted in an article entitled, “How our eyes reveal our thoughts and emotions.” She said, “Eyes can reveal even smallest changes on the body and in the attitude of other people. Given the fact that most people is not aware of this, skillful participant can easily get a hint on what is happening. We cannot “literary” read other people’s minds in their eyes, but we can see the hints about the feelings of the person we are in contact with. These small signs change from moment to moment, and anyone can be aware of them if he or she pays attention to it.”
What can we read from someone’s eyes?
Savic mentioned several emotions we can easily decipher if we pay attention to someone’s eyes when in conversation:
- Changing pupil size can indicate interest in the other person in conversation.
- While speaking, a look up and to the right indicates a person is thinking of the future; a look to the side can indicate thinking of an answer or remembering something from the past; thinking about the recent past we tend to look up; looking down often shows shyness or an avoidance of conversation; a look down and to the right shows we are thinking about what we are about to say; and looking down and to the left indicates considering our emotions or feelings surrounding what we are saying.
- “Sparkling eyes” show emotions whether negative or positive and show triumph and victory.
- Unfocused gaze event reveals a person is no longer paying attention.
- The lowering of a person’s gaze can indicate shame or feeling insubordinate.
- Blinking can suggest secrecy and the desire to share the secret. It can also indicate attraction.
“We cannot read other people’s minds, but we can reveal emotions of the person we are talking to very well and thus guess what could he or she might be thinking about.” (Renata Savic)
“Adults sometimes tend to hide their emotions, however, while they can control the expression on their face, size of the pupils cannot and exactly they can show a person’s thinking.” (Renata Savic)
Some women feel they must act in a certain way, do certain things, or endure labor in certain ways. She may begin to feel as though it is important that she “perform” labor in a way that others (her mom, her mother-in-law, her husband, her doctor, her friends, etc) think she should. Or maybe she desires to do things in a way to prove others wrong that say she shouldn’t labor in the way she desires. This puts a lot of emotional baggage on a laboring mother.
Focusing on “performing” a certain way, the mother may not be focusing on labor in the way that is most beneficial for her. This added anxiety can start to effect her hormones and lead to slowing or stalling of labor. She may not feel she can ask for help or may not even know what to ask for. Being able to recognize certain cues from a mother’s eyes can be very helpful in these situations.
Eye contact also increases oxytocin production, especially when gazing at someone you love dearly. Dr. Shelagh Robinson wrote for Psychology Today in an article entitled, “Eye Candy,” “Oxytocin, a hormone produced in the hypothalamus, is known to be associated with positive gaze experiences. Nursing mothers, new lovers and puppy owners share spiking ‘cuddle drug’ levels. These tender mutual eye interludes are both inspired by oxytocin, and catalyze its synthesis in our brains. A true ‘virtuous cycle,’ experiences of eye candy lead to oxytocin production and feelings of well-being, which stimulates us to look good at others—to do eye candy.”
This article mentions a claim that closing your eyes heightens your perception of pain. I can attest to this as well.
I had the privilege to attend a childbirth education class through Inanna Birth and Women’s Center. One of the classes we participated in an experiment. We held a handful of ice in our bare hands for one minute to simulate a labor contraction. We experimented with different forms of comfort measures to see if we noticed a change in our awareness of the pain.
I fully expected that I would prefer to have my eyes closed so I could focus on getting through the painful minute. Unexpectedly, the minute that I had my eyes open seemed much shorter and much less painful.
This may be due to the theory of Gate Control Theory. This theory suggests that our nerves and brain can only intake so much information. When we throw additional information into our system, our nerves shut down “gates” to only let what is vital in. Essentially, through distraction, we can confuse our brain into not recognizing intense pain. This is behind the use of TENS units and possibly acupressure.
In the transition phase of labor, it isn’t uncommon for a woman to panic a bit. When her doula or husband see she is starting to panic, one of the most effective responses is to take her face in her/his hands, maintain eye contact, and breath with the mother so she will refocus on getting through to the next phase.
I will talk more about focal points in another post but with direct eye contact, a doula or husband can become the birthing woman’s focal point. Maintaining eye contact is a great way to see where a woman is in a contraction. It isn’t easy to describe and can be different with every woman but it is quickly discerned within a few contractions.
Eye contact plays an important role in keeping a laboring mother focused, calm, and relaxed. A doula and husband can work as a team to keep mom focused and in tune with her cues by maintaining eye contact. It isn’t necessary to use continuously throughout labor but it is a very effective tool when it becomes apparent that it is needed.