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The Sounds of Silence During Labor

Written by Sarah Baker CCE(BWI)

I recently listened to an On Being podcast entitled “Silence and The Present of Everything.” The guest, Gordon Teppitt, was an audio ecologist, a career which I’d never heard of and found utterly fascinating. His gentle and calm voice spoke in a poetic way about his experiences and the insights gained from them, a subtle lulling lilt in his energy that soothed me.  His insights on silence, or lack thereof, spoke deeply to me. He defined silence not as an absence of sound, but an absence of noise – an important distinction that is often misunderstood.

Teppitt’s observations were a catalyst to me reflecting on my own experiences with silence. Naturally, being a birth worker, I couldn’t help but immediately think about one of the many skills I’ve had the privilege of refining as a result of my doula work: being comfortable with silence during labor, and more importantly, willingly remaining present during the silent space of labor. In that space is something sacred, something that can’t be easily quantified, and it’s something that is easily missed by those who aren’t paying attention. In all fairness, it’s not  their fault they miss out on the sacred: the interventions and energy and hustling/bustling of the hospital environment drown out the sacred sounds of silence during birth. It dulls the senses and mutes some of the most beautiful aspects of birth by putting such staunch focus on the clinical, the medical, the mechanical. Women and partners often find comfort in the sound of their baby’s heartbeat galloping away on the fetal monitor. The blips and beeps of IV and epidural pumps become white noise or aggravating interruptions. The atmosphere becomes casual and party-like as a revolving door of family members and friends visit the laboring woman. The irritating sounds of nursing station gossip blurts in every time the door is opened. All of it interrupts and disrupts the sacred silence of birth, so much so that many people often cannot distinguish the normal sounds of birth from the man-made noise so common in modern birth.

Just like Teppitt defines silence as an absence of noise rather than an absence of sound, so it is with the experience of silence during labor.  During labor, women instinctually release primal, guttural moans and groans, often referred to as “vocalizing.” When I discuss the concept of vocalizing during my BirthWorks classes, one of my go-to phrases is this: “It’s not a matter of forcing yourself to make these sounds, but rather, giving yourself permission to do so.” The sacred space of silence during labor is often not an absence of noise, for the normal sounds of labor can even be quite loud as they resonate outward from a woman’s vocal cords. But it’s the absence of modern, technological birth noises.

For some women, it takes a conscious effort to let go of their inhibitions, which result from a number of influences (society, family, her personality and temperament). Such influences can create cognitive dissonance within her body. Her instinctual, “old” brain is gradually taking over as she shifts into active labor and is creating the perfect environment internally for the delicate hormonal dance that’s necessary to achieve a healthy labor.

As she begins vocalizing, she naturally starts filling the silent spaces with sounds that may feel very foreign to her. And yet when inhibitions are present, her frontal cortex, or “new brain” is fighting for attention, sending a loop of unproductive messages:

“Listen to yourself, you sound weird!”

“What will they think of you with these crazy noises you’re making?”

“Control yourself, it’s too risky to let go of control.”

Teppitt described why people feel uneasy and uncomfortable with an absence of noise: sitting in silence leaves us feeling vulnerable. Vulnerability invites us go deeper, to allow our truest selves to be seen. Vulnerability is simulataneously exhilarating and terrifying. And so it is with labor and birth. When a woman allows herself to turn off the noise, both the “noisy chatter” of her frontal brain and the literal noise of modern birth, what’s left is an uncomfortable silence and a part of herself she’s never experienced before.

A curious phenomenon begins to occur once she becomes comfortable with the uncomfortable newness of her primal self and primal sounds. Her guttural sounds begin to fill the laboring space. The sounds wash over her with each contraction and create a palpable tension felt by every person present. In between each contraction, she sits in true silence. Time begins to stand still, not only for the woman, but for us, too. All of us become keenly aware of every subtle sound we make, keeping quiet, only speaking when absolutely necessary and in low, hushed voices.

For people present with her who are unexperienced with birth or unexperienced with the normal sounds of birth, this gentle tension created by the birth sounds and the literal silence often leads to feelings of discomfort. Tippett says, “True listening requires vulnerability.” And so it is for the people present, with no external noise to distract them and drown out the primal sounds of birth or to fill the silence in between contractions, it leaves them vulnerable.

Even as an experienced birth professional, I am not immune to such feelings of vulnerability. Over the years, I have learned to embrace this vulnerability. I have learned (and am continuing to learn) to let go of my own inhibitions, quiet the empty chatter of my own mind, and enter into this vulnerable, sacred space with her. I push through the uncomfortable and find my own strength because I know what she is doing in those sacred moments is much greater than my discomfort. I let her primal sounds wash over me, I tune into my own energy and make sure it’s in alignment with the sacred, I encourage her with simple phrases if needed, and resist the urge the fill the silence with unnecessary words. I let go and open myself up fully as she surrenders to the ebb and flow of waves and birth sounds.

Birth has changed me and continues to change me. How could I possibly be left unchanged by such sacred vulnerability, one of the most vulnerable experiences that a woman will ever face, and one in which I willingly remaining present with her? Wisdom, that has only come with experience as I’ve learned to embrace silence and the sacred sounds of birth, is truly a gift that has carried over into every other area of my life. Birth has taught me to welcome my own vulnerability, to sit with myself in the absence of noise, and to embrace the silence of my own heart.