Holding Hands Relieves Pain in Birth, New Study Shows

holding hands.pngA new study out of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at CU Boulder shows that the pain of labor and birth can be reduced simply by a partner holding hands with the laboring person. Researchers studied 22 heterosexual, long-term couples using simulated labor pain scenarios and found that when the male partner held hands with his partner, her pain decreased. Men who showed more empathy for his partner further reduced her pain. 

The idea for the study was born (pun intended) after lead researcher Pavel Goldstein, a postdoctoral pain researcher CU Boulder, witnessed his own wife's birth. He remembered feeling helpless watching her in pain and did what he could think of, which was to reach out and hold her hand. "It seemed to help," he said.

During Goldstein's study, men were assigned the role of observer and women the pain target (simulating a typical labor situation). The couples' heart and breathing rates were measured during a series of different interactions: sitting together; not touching; sitting together holding hands; and sitting separately in different rooms. The interactions were repeated as the woman was subjected to mild pain (via heat) on her forearm.  

Like in previous study results, just sitting together allowed the couples to sync up physically (breathing, heart rate). When the woman was subjected to pain, however, and her partner could not touch her, that synchronization was lost. When touch was allowed and the man could hold his partner's hand, they synced up again and her pain decreased. 

Results from this study further support a growing body of research on the occurrence of "interpersonal synchronization," which refers to the tendency for humans to sync up when paired together, matching things like breathing and heart rate, as well as mirroring movements and posture.

Perhaps the best thing to come out of this study is the sheer simplicity of the fact that HOLDING HANDS REDUCES PAIN IN BIRTH! C'mon, how awesome is that?! You don't need to memorize every nitty gritty detail from your childbirth class to remember such a small and meaningful gesture, which, I imagine, is a relief to many partners. Of course, coping with labor pain effectively throughout the course of labor and birth (especially for those labors that are extra long or extra challenging) will likely require a smidgen more than hand-holding, so don't cancel your childbirth prep class or put down your birth book just yet. The study's author cautions that, like most research in its infancy, further study is needed to determine exactly how a partner's touch eases pain. Goldstein hopes that this and future research of its kind will lend more scientific evidence to the idea that touch can ease pain. 

Lamaze childbirth education has long taught about using touch as one way to find comfort and relieve pain in birth. In a typical Lamaze class, attendees get to try out a variety of pain-relieving techniques, including "touch" exercises, like massage, counter pressure, and effleurage or light touch. The teaching theory is that a pleasurable sensory experience like touch interrupts the pain sensory route to the brain, which lessens the person's overall sensation of pain (referred to as the "gate control" theory of pain). Additionally, Lamaze educators teach partners about using eye contact and "mirroring" (like a partner purposefully breathing in sync with the laboring person) in labor to help their laboring partner to find a renewed sense of calm and control. 

Share in the comments: What kind of partner support techniques helped you most in labor? 



  1. Pavel Goldstein, Irit Weissman-Fogel, Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory. The role of touch in regulating inter-partner physiological coupling during empathy for pain. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-03627-7
  2. "A lover's touch eases pain as heartbeats, breathing sync." CU Boulder Today.

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