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Move over video games, because there’s a new use for virtual reality (VR) — helping women get through labor.

The University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, Wales was one of the first hospitals to roll out testing virtual reality for women during labor, with promising results.

And the move toward using VR during labor has reached the U.S. as well. For instance, one mother from New York was able to use virtual reality to help manage her pain throughout her labor. She didn’t take off her headset until it was time to push.

Wondering what exactly virtual reality entails? In most cases, it’s as simple as a special headset the user wears. The combination of images the user views and soothing sounds or words can help create an immersive environment.

Virtual reality offers patients a medication-free option to help them cope with the anxieties and pain of birth.

While VR can be used on its own to manage pain, it can also be paired with other forms of pain management during labor.

One study found that even when women had access to pain medication on-demand, using VR helped them reduce the amount of medication they needed to control their pain.

Having had 2 med-free births, I can attest that getting through labor without pain meds is above all a mental experience. I was taught to choose a focal point to get through contractions, so it makes sense that virtual reality could serve as an aid to help women focus through labor.

Using virtual reality for women in labor could have many benefits, such as:

  • lower cost
  • few side effects (though it may not be appropriate for those with motion sickness)
  • low risk to mother or baby (the most common side effect reported is nausea)
  • effective pain relief
  • a medication-free option
  • offers choices to empower a mother in her birthing experience
  • may also offer relief during post-birth procedures, like stitches for tears or incisions

Although the initial investment in headsets and software may be costly, the continued use of VR during labor would be low cost, especially when compared to other types of pain control.

For instance, NPR reported that one woman was billed $4,836 for nitrous oxide (laughing gas) during labor. The cost of an epidural can easily exceed $2,000.

Virtual reality could also help those who may have an active or past substance use disorder.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s clinical guide on treating pregnant people with opioid use disorder explains that those with the disorder can have a diminished response to opioid medication. This means they often require higher doses to find relief.

During labor, it’s possible that VR could offer a way to augment or replace medication to help manage pain for those with a substance use disorder.

Clinical trials and studies have shown that virtual reality is an effective method for pain relief during labor.

Two studies in January and June 2019 found that women using VR during labor experienced a decrease in their reported pain.

The effectiveness of virtual reality in pain relief isn’t entirely understood, but there are several factors at play.

Not only does it help distract and relax women, but it’s thought that VR may also increase the body’s own levels of endorphins and other pain-blocking mechanisms.

In fact, virtual reality can be so effective that it’s being tested for use in all kinds of medical situations — from painful procedures to the discomfort of a Pap smear or dental visit.

So, will this option be in a hospital near you anytime soon? Maybe.

The primary things preventing the widespread use of VR have been:

There also aren’t that many companies that make VR technology for healthcare settings.

However, more companies are developing the technology. This isn’t only lowering the cost, but also increasing its availability. More information about the option may attract more people who are curious about its use.

In fact, virtual reality is predicted to become mainstream in the medical world — so it might not be long before a headset is offered as a standard option in your birth plan.

According to BBC News, the midwives at The University Hospital of Wales hope to introduce virtual reality to women in early labor. They believe that’s when they’re more in control and can focus more fully on immersing themselves in the VR experience.

Users have found it to be helpful in situations where the mother coming into the hospital is very anxious.

For instance, a mother who may have had a prior traumatic birth, or a first-time mother coming in for an induction, might feel especially nervous. In those situations, using virtual reality to help the patient ease into labor in a gentle, medication-free way can be very effective.

When you think about it, for a lot of women, having a baby might be the first time they’ve ever been in a hospital, so it makes sense that they may have some anxiety about the process.

And if something as simple as a VR headset can help them relax and feel more comfortable, well then, why not?

So who knows, maybe the next time you head in to have a baby, you’ll be greeted with a virtual reality headset. Then, instead of a view of your partner snoring or eating a giant, delicious sandwich in front of you (don’t ask me how I know this, people), you could be “sitting” beachside watching the waves roll in.

Add in a margarita and it sounds like I might just think about having another baby after all…


Chaunie Brusie

Chaunie Brusie is a labor and delivery nurse turned writer and a newly minted mom of 5. She writes about everything from finance to health to how to survive those early days of parenting when all you can do is think about all the sleep you aren’t getting. Follow her on Facebook.