Comfort Measures in Labor: Touch
Using touch in labor is one of the most effective forms of comforting a laboring mother. I have written on several forms of touch: massage, acupressure, and counter pressure. These forms of touch are particularly helpful in relieving physical pressure and pain. However, touch can also be very comforting emotionally and psychologically.
As a woman progresses throughout the different stages of labor, she exhibits dramatic changes in her emotional and psychological state. During the first stage of labor, a mother may show excitement, confidence, and maybe a little anxiety. As she enters active labor, her often changes. She often becomes quite, more serious, and focused. In transition, women frequently become overwhelmed, irritable, tense, and may start to feel despair, as if she can no longer go on.
Touch can be a very effective way to show a mother in labor encouragement, support, and to help anchor her.
“Although the power of speech allows us to imbibe great subtlety and complexity in our messages, psychological researchers have demonstrated that something as complex as gratitude or sympathy can be communicated with a simple touch.” ~ Maria Alvarellos (“The Science of Touch and Emotion,” Berkeley Science Review)
We communicate verbally and non-verbally. Touch is one form of non-verbal communication. Touch can reinforce what we are saying or even say something when we can’t seem to find the words. A hug can say, “I’m here for you and I love you.” A hand on the shoulder can say, “I understand and support you.” A squeeze of the hand can say, “We’re in this together. You are stronger than you even know.”
Rick Chillot in an article for Psychology Today entitled “The Power of Touch,” quoted the Touch Research Institute’s Dr. Tiffany Field describing “when you stimulate the pressure receptors in the skin, you lower stress hormones.”
Chillot went on to quote another scientist explaining touch has a “reciprocal nature.” The same benefits seen in the person being touched, a reduction in stress, are also observed in the person delivering the touch.
A couple of times when I have had a disagreement with a person, I have tried to use touch to defuse the situation. Even though I am not a “touchy feely” person, I would make an effort to touch the person I was arguing with and point out that we were in disagreement but I still cared for them. I’m not sure if this action made any difference in the person I was touching but it often helped break down a protective wall I had built between the two of us. I always left the experience feeling less angry with the person and less stressed over the situation.
Physical touch is a way to encourage and inspire each other to keep going. In an article entitled, “That human touch that means so much: Exploring the tactile dimension of social life,” published at The Inquisitive Mind, Mandy Tjew A Sin and Sander Koole described one study that indicates that “touch can motivate people to work harder on shared tasks.”
Sin and Koole made note of several studies in their article that have concluded that touch increases the production of oxytocin. In his article, Chillot also mentioned, “warm touch stimulates release of the ‘cuddle hormone,’ oxytocin, which enhances a sense of trust and attachment.” Alvarellos (“The Science of Touch and Emotion”) also claimed, “Receptors sensitive to pressure, warmth, and other triggers, cause our bodies to release a rush of oxytocin.”
Chillot continued, “Perhaps because touch affects both the person being touched and the one doing the touching, it is one of the most fundamental ways of fostering and communicating intimacy in a romantic relationship.”
We need physical touch in bonding experience. Psychologist Harry Harlow, in a controversial study in the 1950’s, was one of the first scientists to show “intimate body contact, and not feeding, was the most important factor in mother-child bonding.” Sin and Koole explained, “The soothing effects of touch likely remain important in adulthood. There is growing evidence that touch from a romantic partner buffers us against stress.”
How does touch affect a mother in labor?How does touch affect a mother in labor? Click To Tweet
A mother in labor needs to feel that she is supported. She needs to know that she has someone she can rely on as an anchor, as her rock. The intimate bonding that happens between a woman and her husband in labor is increased by the flow of oxytocin. At the same time, the more intimate the boding experience, the more the body produces oxytocin. This is a beautiful and rewarding cycle in labor.
As I have mentioned in past posts, oxytocin is the number one ingredient to keeping the contractions flowing, making them more effective, and speeding up labor. One of the easiest ways to keep this oxytocin flowing is through touch, especially the touch of her husband.
Another key to keeping the production of oxytocin at a high is to reduce the mother’s stress. When a person becomes stressed, she starts to produce adrenaline. Adrenaline inhibits the production of oxytocin which can lengthen labor or stop it altogether. Touch has been shown in study after study to have a significant positive effect on lowering stress levels.
I have read many birth stories and one common element in many of them is when a mother expresses how much her husband’s or doula’s hand helped to ground her when it felt like her pain and emotions were about to run away with her. The husband or doula’s touch kept her focused and secure in the process of labor.
In the Psychology Today article, Chillot did point out that touch may not always be the best way to communicate and comfort. “Different cultures and individuals have different tolerance levels for touch. Same-sex and opposite-sex touches have different implications. Then there’s the quality of the touch, the duration, the intensity, the circumstances.”
It is also important to remember that some people do not like to be touched and some women even like it less when they are in pain, as with childbirth. Some women like the physical touch in one stage of labor but not in the next. Paying close attention to the mother’s cues in labor can help her support team know what she needs and when.
Touch is a highly effective way of showing encouragement, support, love, and anchoring a woman in labor.
“Research shows that touch is the best way to comfort.” ~ Laura Guerrero, coauthor of Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships
If you are in the Denton, TX area and are interested in hiring a doula for your birth experience, contact me today to schedule a free consultation. If you are interested in learning about more comfort measures in labor, check out my Comfort Measures page.