Giving birth to Kenny G: the playlists that help mothers through childbirth

Many women prepare music to aid them through labour, and Hong Kong doctors agree it helps. Spotify has 90,000 ‘push playlists’, now including a doctor-approved ‘ideal birthing playlist’

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2016, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 April, 2016, 6:01pm

If you’d seen Katherine Kee right after delivering her first child, you would never have guessed she’d just been through 33 hours of labour. The mother of a five-month-old baby says she “still felt quite good and not totally exhausted” after the prolonged labour. Her secret: a 10-hour-long music playlist that included tunes from Kenny G, David Foster, Kevin Kern, Andrea Bocelli, piano instrumentals and some yoga kirtans.

“I could get through each contraction a lot easier and calmer,” says Kee, a yoga instructor, who also used hypnobirthing techniques. “I focused on the breathing and the music and managed my fears.”

Music has long been used during labour; singing was used during childbirth since way back in history, notes Tina Cassidy, author of the 2006 book Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born.

But recently the topic has hit some fresh notes: popular digital music service Spotify has teamed up with a leading obstetrician from New York to create what they call the “ideal birthing playlist”. The playlist – which includes tracks from John Legend, Pink, Regina Spektor, D’Angelo, John Lennon, and others – is said to have been “scientifically designed” by Dr Jacques Moritz and “delivery room tested and approved” to accompany women from the start of contractions to the moment they first meet their newborn.

There are more than 90,000 “Push Playlists” on Spotify, and Moritz reports that 70 per cent of his patients prepare playlists specifically for going into labour.

Experts in Hong Kong say it’s quite common for women in this city to prepare playlists for childbirth.

“Every woman has her own way of coping with the discomfort and the stress during labour,” says Dr Patrick Chan Sai-lok, a specialist in reproductive medicine at Matilda International Hospital. “Most will have some kind of distraction, either listening to music or watching their favourite TV show or movie.”

Even some women undergoing planned caesarean sections want their babies to be born to certain music, Chan adds.

In the newly published Oxford Handbook of Music Therapy, the authors report that studies have indicated a reduction in anxiety, pain and length of labour when music is paired with traditional exercises from the Lamaze method, a breathing and relaxation technique for birthing developed in the 1950s.

In 2005, Taiwanese researchers Chang Shu-chen and Chen Chung-hey studied the effect of music on physiological measures, anxiety and satisfaction during caesarean delivery in 64 women. Standard care was compared to preferred music listening, and results indicated that those listening to music had significantly lower anxiety and higher self-reported satisfaction during the caesarean birthing progress. In another study by Chen and colleagues in 2015, listening to music was shown to be an effective coping strategy to reduce pregnancy stress among women in Taiwan.

“Music strongly influences our limbic system, which manages our memories, emotions, and how we deal with fear and pain,” explains Moritz, an assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical College and an assistant attending ob-gyn at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

“It makes sense that women would turn to music during childbirth as a source of comfort and strength. In addition, hospitals, particularly delivery rooms, can be noisy and disconcerting – a good playlist helps distract mothers from these sounds and better manage fear and pain, leading to a more positive delivery experience.”

Moritz’s new Spotify playlist mirrors the birthing experience, starting with songs that are slow and mellow, then transitioning into songs with a stronger beat for when it’s time to push, and concluding with Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 performed by the legendary Yo-Yo Ma for when the baby finally arrives.

Hulda Thorey, director and founder of Annerley midwives clinic and a Hong Kong-registered midwife, encourages mothers to prepare a playlist for labour, but emphasises it’s important that the woman is open to using music and also tests the playlist beforehand, because music can affect one’s mood dramatically – for better or worse.

Thorey, a mother of four, suggests creating a few different playlists. First, a very slow, relaxed one for helping through tiredness or the normal cycle of the body during nighttime. This can be yoga music or relaxation programmes, in combination with more romantic, relaxed tunes, she says.

For the second playlist, Thorey suggests is made up of favourite music that makes you smile and gives you energy. Memories stirred by the music can help make the birthing process feel faster, she says.

Finally, she suggests a third list: a selection of podcasts on topics that will capture your attention. Thorey herself had listened to a podcast on the story of the band Queen during labour and says it was very helpful and time passed quickly.

“Make sure the playlists are long,”she says, “as it’s terribly boring to listen many times to the same playlist and it gives the feeling that labour is going on forever.”

Ronda Ng, a mother of two, had a playlist of her favourite tunes at the suggestion of her husband and with the approval of her obstetrician.

“I’m not sure if it helped me, but I liked that I had something ‘familiar’ within the labour ward,” says Ng. “The most ironic thing is my son entered the world to Coldplay’s Scientist: ‘Nobody said it was easy...’.”

To have music or not during labour is really a woman’s personal choice, says Chan at the Matilda Hospital. Even considering whether to have one and the act of preparing it can help a pregnant woman be more prepared for labour, he says.

“It’s kind of like a birth plan – working out a playlist can help you mentally prepare for labour. And while you're in labour, at least you’ll have some kind of time frame in mind, since you’re the person who created the playlist,” Chan says.

“But during the second stage of labour, realistically I don’t think the woman will actually know what’s playing in the background any more. It’s nice to say, ‘this is what I want to hear when I’m pushing’, but when they’re really pushing hard I doubt they’ll be hearing much.”

The ‘ideal birthing playlist’ in full:

1 Pearl Jam Just Breathe

2 James Bay Let It Go

3 Regina Spektor Don’t Leave Me

4 Sigur Rós Festival

5 Death Cab for Cutie Transatlanticism

6 The Lumineers Ho Hey

7 Norah Jones Sunrise

8 Craft Spells After the Moment

9 Xavier Rudd Follow the Sun

10 Lucinda Williams Fruits of My Labor

11 John Lennon Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)

12 Colbie Caillat Capri

13 D’Angelo Really Love

14 Milton Nascimento Nos Bailes Da Vida

15 Coldplay Don’t Panic

16 Fleet Foxes Your Protector

17 Yeah Yeah Yeahs Maps

18 Kygo, Maty Noyes Stay

19 P!nk Try

20 Muse Starlight

21 John Legend All of Me - Tiesto’s Birthday Remix

22 David Bowie, Queen Under Pressure

23 U2 With or Without You

24 Wilco Impossible Germany

25 Arcade Fire Wake Up

26 R.E.M. Nightswimming

27 Patty Griffin Heavenly Day

28 Iron & Wine Naked As We Came

29 Beyoncé Blue

30 Johann Sebastian Bach, Yo-Yo Ma Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1

Spotify users can find the playlist at https://open.spotify.com/user/spotifyusa/playlist/3RGuZn0I0WjJoRKR2zWjeV

Want to create your own playlist? Moritz has the following tips for choosing music

Comforting and familiar: this helps put expectant mothers at ease. The delivery room is not the place to experiment with a new musician or genre, but a place to return to old and familiar favourites. Moritz in particular recommends women select favourite songs from their adolescence, which our minds remember over many years like a warm, worn sweater for the soul.

Strong instrumentals: songs for labour and pushing should emphasise instrumentals, which the mind intuitively processes. Music with lyrics, on the other hand, can be distracting. If you absolutely want songs with lyrics, selecting ones with lyrics in a language you don’t understand can have the same effect as listening to an instrumental.

Length and variety: while labour time varies, expectant mothers should create long playlists with a wide variety of artists. Moritz recommends at least five hours of music, with 10 hours ideal especially for first-time mums.

Beautiful: The moment a child is born is highly emotional and memorable and the music you recall from that day should maintain that sense of beauty and emotion. Research has also shown that songs the fetus hears in the womb can be remembered, so make those memories beautiful too.