Have you ever sat and talked with a friend while you waited and noticed that the time flew by? Have you ever struggled more through a run or gym session when there isn't any music playing? Do you find yourself turning down the radio in your car when you are trying to figure out where you're going? The explanation behind all of these circumstances is the critical, surprising, and sometimes annoying, work of distraction.
Your brain was designed to focus its attention only on a certain (few) things at a time. This means that multitasking, while you might swear by it, is mostly a myth. It also means that you can distract your brain with things that bring you pleasure in order to dampen or crowd out altogether the things that cause you discomfort and pain. Like labor.
In many ways, a good childbirth class really just teaches you about the fine art of distraction and how to use it to your advantage in labor and birth in order to cope with and reduce your sensation of pain. Of course, there's way more in a good childbirth class.
Finding the right kind of distractions -- also known as coping measure or pain relieving strategies -- to use during your labor is important if a) you want to avoid most, if not all, pain relieving medications and/or b) you want to be able to get through any, all, or most parts of labor feeling in control, comforted, and in less pain. Even if you "just know" you're going to get an epidural, remember that there is still early labor and the time in active labor before you get an epidural, as well as the possibility of needing to cope with contractions if the epidural does not relieve pain the way you expected.
But enough of the back story; let's get to good stuff.
Healthy Distractions that Help You Get Through Labor
Music - Make a playlist. Use Spotify or Pandora for variety. Have your partner play the guitar. Whatever soothes you most! Experiment in prepregnancy to have a better idea of what resonates.
Touch - This might mean you touching something, like a smooth stone in your hand or squeezing a tennis or stress ball. Perhaps more effective, however, is when someone provides touch to you while in labor in the form of massage, pressure, or even an embrace. Different kinds of touch may feel better at different points in your labor. And when you're close to birth, you may prefer no touch at all!
Imagery/focal point - Bring pictures of loved ones, a favorite art piece, prayer/mantra flags, a picture of your favorite beach -- whatever brings you peace and happiness when you gaze at it.
Visualization - Different than using an image, this kind of visualization uses recorded or spoken scripts that help take your mind to a different place or state of feeling. Guided imagery or guided visualization can be an incredibly effective practice in labor and beyond. Ideally you will spend time in pregnancy practicing the use of this tool. You can find lots of free guided visualizations online.
Breathing patterns - Experiment with rhythmic breathing patterns. Long, slow, and deep, or short and fast -- different kinds of purposeful, patterned breathing can provide effective relief through distraction during labor and birth.
A meaningful object - Bringing an object of significance, like a necklace, stuffed toy, or handmade blanket can bring comfort and provide distraction through touch.
TV - Not everyone appreciates television during labor (and would prefer it be turned off), but for some, it is a useful distraction!
Movement or dance - Moving, including dance, walking, swaying, etc., is helpful not only as a method of distraction, but it's also a great way to stay active during your labor, which can help with how quickly it progresses.
Cooking - Of course, this is best reserved for early labor, but cooking, which is very much a hands-on experience, can be a welcome distraction... as long as you set a timer just in case you get so involved in labor you forget about the food you're cooking!
Singing/playing instrument - If you're musically inclined, maybe you'd be inclined to use your talents to get you through labor... it might just work! The distraction of focusing on another task, plus the use of breath for singing or playing a wind instrument seems like it would be the perfect combination for coping with contractions.
Laughter - What makes you laugh? Joke telling? Watching stand-up? Telling funny stories? Laughter reduces stress hormones and increases feel-good endorphins, which are perfect for helping with labor.
Prayer - Prayer, whether out loud, silent, or praying together with someone, can bring comfort, peace, and relaxation when you need it most.
Candy (sucking) or ice (crunching) - Can you believe that something as simple as sucking on a piece of dark chocolate or a hard candy, or crunching ice is a helpful, pain-relieving distraction? Try it the next time you feel stressed!
Water (tub, shower, birth pool) - Using water is one of the most effective ways to relieve pain in labor. If you don't have a tub where you're laboring, use warm or hot water from the shower.
Hot or cold (or both!) - Ice packs, rice socks, heating pads - prolonged methods for applying cold or hot to different areas of your body, but especially the lower back, can bring tremendous relief in labor.
Smell/scent - The essential oils industry is booming, and for good reason -- scent is powerful! You don't need fancy oils for labor (though they are wonderful and you may just want to try them out!); your favorite lotion, a freshly washed shirt, or even a dark chocolate bar can be enough to distract and bring comfort.
Whatever you choose to accompany you in labor for distractions, I encourage you to think about it now, during pregnancy, and plan for a range of choices. At worst, you'll bring too many things with you in labor. At best, you'll have lots of distractions to keep you, uh, busy during your labor and birth. And don't forget to involve your partner and/or birth support person and doula -- make sure they know about the items you would like to try to use to cope with labor pain.
If you're feeling confused or overwhelmed about how to use distractions for coping with labor pain, find a good childbirth class in your area. Make sure the instructor is certified and includes a variety of labor coping measures review in class.