Dimming the Lights: An Aid for Helping Labor Progress

Getting out of the bathtub at Spectrum Health Butterworth, after laboring under the light of LED flameless candles.

— By Beth Singleton, Birth Quest birth doula and photographer

I still remember my last labor like it was yesterday. Waking in the wee hours to discover I was in labor, only to have it stall during the daylight hours and then ramp back up after the sun set. When pushing, the room was dimly lit and to make things even darker, I had my face buried into the couch.

What is it about darkness that seems to ease and promote the progress of labor? A very common desire among laboring women, I thought it’d be a great idea to look into this.

The need for darkness is observed in nature.

If you’ve ever had the experience of witnessing a cat during labor, you probably noticed her need for a safe, dark place. When my cat had her kittens a few years back, that’s exactly what she did. In a box under my bed, our proud momma cat gave birth to her babies. This need stems from the mammalian brain, a commonality that affects cats, dogs, mice…and humans! I mean, we’re mammals, too, so regardless of the countless ways in which we’re nothing like our pets, the biological event of birth reaches deep to reveal that our needs are ultimately very similar.

Bright lights can make a laboring woman feel exposed.

Birth is a very private event for a woman. During such an intimate moment in her life, bright lights shining down can cause her to feel like she’s being observed or like she has no privacy. In nature, laboring animal mother’s will stop mid-labor if they think they are being watched in order to find safety. In a hospital setting, though, a woman can’t follow in the footsteps of her fellow mammal mothers and relocate if she feels like she isn’t safe.

Bright lights stimulate the neocortex of a laboring woman’s brain.

This increases brain activity during a time when labor progress relies on a woman’s primitive brain instincts. This stimulation can interfere with a woman’s ability to produce the hormones necessary for labor to progress and to help with pain. Some sources of bright light include:

• overhead lighting
• windows
• computers
• cell phones
• tablets
• televisions
• monitors

In particular, electronic devices affect the body’s ability to rest. Blue light, the light produced from items like cell phones and tablets, interferes with the production of sleep-promoting hormones. So even in a room where the lights are off, it’s important to consider the effect of having the television on or staring at a phone if relaxation is the goal.

How does darkness aid in relaxation?

When the lights go down and the room darkens, this signals to the brain that it’s time for rest. One of the hormones produced is melatonin. Also known as the “hormone of darkness”, melatonin promotes relaxation and sleep. When a laboring woman is better able to relax, she will probably rest better and more deeply between contractions. Her contractions might also be less painful if she isn’t holding so much tension in her body.

There are numerous ways to labor with the lights down low.

Whether laboring at home or in a hospital, there are several ways to create a dimly lit setting.
For a home birth, consider some of these ideas:

• night lights
• LED candles
• string lights
• votive and/or pillar candles
• dimmable lamp
• blackout curtains
indoor light projector

For a hospital birth, most of the above options aren’t as feasible. For example, a hospital probably isn’t going to permit burning candles; they will, however, allow LED candles. And items like string lights or lamps are bulky and may not be allowed, either. Night lights and indoor light projectors, on the other hand, are small and the room will likely have at least one outlet you can use to plug them in.

Sometimes, though, darkness isn’t the best option.

While it makes sense that many women desire to labor in darkness or a space that is dimly lit, there are
circumstances when the issue shouldn’t be pressed. Examples include:

• women who are afraid of the dark
• women who might become anxious if they feel the darkness would interfere with their care
• women with a history of trauma who feel safer with the lights on
• women who simply object to having the lights off

In the end, it all comes down to a woman’s preference.

Whether she chooses to labor with the lights on or off, the point is that she gets what helps her the
most. Ultimately, it’s the support she receives from those around her that will have the biggest impact
on her birth experience.

If you’ve already given birth, did you dim the lights? Why or why not?

We’d love to hear your feedback on this!

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