So here’s the question that’s been playing on my mind recently – could using virtual reality (VR) technology be helpful to women in labour?
You might associate these VR gadgets with your average teenage boy who is obsessed with the world of gaming and is glued to his Xbox, however the use of VR in healthcare is actually gaining momentum. There have been promising results with its use in areas such as pain management, physical therapy, PTSD and cognitive rehabilitation. In fact virtual reality offers growing opportunities in many areas of our lives – you can even experience the clubbing world through VR as described by a club goer here – VR dancefloors: Techno in Berlin. Of course clubbing and gaming are forms of entertainment, but the physical act of giving birth with VR…really? how would that actually work?
The idea is that women would be encouraged to wear a VR headset whilst in labour that projects relaxing images whilst playing peaceful music or birth hypnosis tracks. This technology helps takes them away from the reality that they are birthing in a medical setting surrounded by strangers wearing uniforms which for many women can be unsettling and give rise to fearful thoughts and negative feelings.
The famous obstetrician Dr Grantly Dick Read wrote his renowned book ‘childbirth without fear’ back in 1942. He hypothesized that the emotional and physical effects of fear can hinder the birthing process which is the basis for the hypnobirthing antenatal courses that we teach today.
Our courses teach deep relaxation and hypnosis techniques to avoid the fear response and have helped many women to have a positive and sometimes pain free and enjoyable birth experience – yes really!! One of the techniques we teach is visualization – encouraging women to take themselves mentally to their ‘safe and peaceful place’. The VR headset would really help women to do this by taking them on a visual journey away from the labour ward surrounded by monitors and other medical equipment to a more tranquil setting. Such relaxation techniques help to suppress adrenaline and encourage the flow of endorphins and the hormone oxytocin to bring about effective contractions that can results in an easier birth. So we know that mental relaxation can bring about physical relaxation which can in turn aid the birthing process, however the hospital birthing environment these days is not conducive to this.
We are no longer living in the 1950’s when most women gave birth in the familiar surroundings of their own home with a midwife they had come to know and trust through their pregnancy. Yes we really do love the T.V. series ‘call the midwife’ but this is 2017 and times have changed. It seems likely that the business of giving birth in the UK will be obstetric led in the not too distant future. With more than 25% of all labours in England being induced the reality now for many women is that they will have a medically managed birth on labour ward with midwives and doctors they have never met before. Many of us midwives have now accepted this as fact even if it doesn’t sit comfortably with us because research suggests that continuity of care from midwives in a low risk setting (unless women have serious medical or obstetric complications) results in better outcomes. Many women that do plan to birth at home or in a midwifery led unit actually find themselves giving birth on labour ward due to unforeseen circumstances such as staff shortages / midwifery units being closed etc.
The use of technology in the birth room such as VR headsets is however questionable –
Should we really be encouraging women to detach themselves from the ‘present moment’ whilst giving birth, why would this innovation be a good idea?
Well there are many women that suffer PTSD following childbirth. Many have pushed their babies out without assistance, some even with an epidural, which goes to show it’s not just the mode of birth or addressing the pain that some women experience in labour that prevents PTSD – birth trauma is more complex than that. If changing the perception of birth through methods such as VR enables women to experience birth in a more positive way and avoids PTSD then surely we should be embracing this.
One study into women’s experience of episiotomy repair post birth whilst using V.R gave positive findings.
And it’s not only patients that can benefit; medical staff can too through training with VR. Will future student midwives experience their first ‘catch’ through VR? From a practical point of view this could improve patient safety. As always we midwives need to focus on making birth not only a safe but a positive experience for all women and move with the times.
For pregnant women what will the future hold? Maybe as you arrive at the hospital in the throes of labour, you’ll be greeted by your midwife, and given not only a pot for your urine sample, but also a VR headset to wear too, just what the doctor ordered!
Midwife Amy has recently attended one of our hypnobirthing courses taught by Katheryn and has agreed to give VR a go during her labour. As with the other hypnobirthing techniques she’ll practise using the VR headset during pregnancy as she relaxes at home. This will condition her mind to associate the calming images and sounds with deep physical relaxation so that when her contractions start and she puts on the VR headset she will be transported back to that peaceful ‘virtual place’. We’re looking forward to hearing how she gets on…. watch this space, we’ll keep you posted!