For pregnant women looking to have a natural birth, a new way to ease the pain of labor is currently being tested. As ABC15 reports, a few hospitals in the U.S. are giving patients the option to wear VR headsets over drugs.
New Yorker and mom of three Erin Martucci wore the device while in labor with each of her two youngest children.
Because the birth of first child, now a 4-year-old, went by so fast, she decided to skip the drugs when giving birth to her second child, Elizabeth, now 3, she told ABC15. As Erin’s pain got worse, she said her doctor at Greater Hudson Valley Health System in Middletown, NY offered her the headset, which she wore for about two hours—which equated to half of her labor. “[The doctor] came in with the equipment and put it on my head and the scene was a beach and there was also a voice guidance,” she said. “The voice guidance and the visual calmed me down and made me know I could get through the labor without drugs.”
During labor with her third child, a daughter named Catherine, born last month, Erin wore the tech item again—starting when doctors broke her water until her daughter was born, for a total of about 30 minutes.
Commenting on her experiences wearing the VR headset in the delivery room, she told ABC15, “You know your body is progressing through labor but it gives you something to concentrate on. I really focused on what was presented in front of me during contractions and the guidance helped me breathe and stay in control and calm.”
Currently, the hospital where Erin gave birth is one of two to three in the U.S. that offer VR to women, Melissa Wong, M.D., a maternal fetal medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, told ABC15.
Known techniques to help ease the pain during natural birth include using patterned breathing, a birthing ball, aromatherapy, and, focus and distraction, which is where using VR falls in.
As for why hospitals are turning to VR in the first place? Research shows that it’s a helpful tool for women in the delivery room. For example, a study published last summer based in The University of Michigan found that VR is a “potentially effective technique for improving pain and anxiety during labor,” but study authors noted that further research was needed and there were some possible effects such as fatigue and nausea, ABC15 said. And a report in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology published in January found that immersive virtual reality use in labor may decrease pain and potentially decrease the use of IV pain medication to allow an improved labor experience.
Dr. Wong herself is researching the topic, and has been leading a year-long study that would be the most comprehensive to date on whether VR during labor is a data-proven option that more hospitals should offer. In it, she studies 40 first-time moms, monitoring their vital signs and pain levels as they use the device for up to 30 minutes while giving birth. “If this is proven by data again and again to be beneficial, then it becomes something that women who believe they could benefit from it can use,” she told ABC15.
In February, one of the participants, Aviva Lahmany, told the The Wall Street Journal that during her labor, “the pain was really bad,” and at that point, she was “willing to do anything.” However, VR “takes you out of that hospital room,” she said. “I was able to actually breathe. It really helped center me and calm me.”