How virtual reality transforms women’s labor experiences

In a recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers explore the utility of virtual reality (VR) as a non-pharmacological intervention in managing labor pain and anxiety.

Study: ‘Giving birth on a beach’: Women’s experiences of using virtual reality in labor. Image Credit: Prostock-studio / Shutterstock.com Study: ‘Giving birth on a beach’: Women’s experiences of using virtual reality in labor. Image Credit: Prostock-studio / Shutterstock.com

Managing labor pain

Giving birth is a life-changing experience for women that typically causes severe labor pain and anxiety. Aside from its physiological consequences, labor pain is associated with emotional and psychological experiences that trigger a feeling of fulfillment and accomplishment.  

Pregnant women who want to experience a natural birth often decide to use various non-pharmacological interventions to reduce the intensity of labor pain and associated anxiety, such as heat packs, water immersion, massage, and acupressure. These interventions increase their self-confidence and level of satisfaction, in addition to allowing them to be responsive to the physiological process of giving birth.

Various distraction techniques, including music therapy, visualization, and hypnobirthing, have also been shown to effectively reduce labor pain. Likewise, VR is a promising intervention that has successfully reduced acute pain and anxiety in various healthcare settings.

VR allows users to enter an immersive three-dimensional (3D) computer-generated world using a headset, where they can be exposed to a multi-sensory experience. The therapeutic efficacy of VR for pain relief primarily depends on the illusion of presence and immersiveness during the procedure.   

Study design

The current study included 25 pregnant women who were thoroughly interviewed between one and two weeks after giving birth, 19 of whom used VR in early and active labor.

All study participants experienced a range of VR environments, including tropical beach scenes, underwater dolphin scenes, and animal safari scenes. The scientists audio-recorded and transcribed each qualitative in-depth interview. Thematic analysis was used to analyze the qualitative data.   

Important observations

The thematic analysis identified three main themes: VR's impact on the labor experience, VR's use to manage labor pain, and the challenges of using VR in labor.

The impact of VR described the potency of this approach as a distraction technique. According to the study participants, VR helped them escape from hospital environments, the boredom associated with long and slow labor, as well as the present reality and pain.

The study participants reported experiencing relaxation, enjoyment and reduced anxiety while using VR during labor. Regarding experiences related to giving birth, women perceived VR as a positive and satisfactory experience.

VR was found to effectively manage labor pain by controlling participants’ breathing and providing them with a sense of control over the labor. The combination of images, sounds, and the immersive experience associated with the VR environment helped the study participants cope with and tolerate labor pain.

The VR environment also improved the study participants’ self-confidence in managing the pain of contractions during active labor. It distracted them from thinking about pain, thereby reducing their sensation of pain. By synchronizing their breathing with the visuals and sounds of the VR environment, the study participants felt relaxed and calm, which ultimately helped them manage labor pain.

Some of the reported challenges associated with VR included the headset hardware, as well as the feeling of being disconnected from partners or support people. Furthermore, the meditation and relaxation scenes used in VR had a shorter running time, which was described as annoying by some women, as they needed to be constantly replayed.

Most women reported plans to use water immersion to manage labor. As the VR headset was not waterproof, these study participants reported feeling anxious about damaging the equipment. Some participants reported that the weight of the headset restricted their movements in the birthing pool.

Some participants also reported that the immersive effect of the VR environment caused them to feel disconnected at times from their partner and labor experience.

Despite these challenges, about 94% of women shared their willingness to use VR again in the future and to recommend it to their pregnant friends.

Study significance

The study findings indicate that VR is an effective non-pharmacological technique for pain management in labor. Moreover, this distraction technique was found to effectively help pregnant women escape from the labor room, as well as feel calm and relaxed while giving birth. 

Journal reference:
  • Massov, L., Robinson, B., Rodriguez-Ramirez, E., & Maude, R. (2024). ‘Giving birth on a beach’: Women’s experiences of using virtual reality in labor. PLOS ONE. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0304349
Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta

Written by

Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta

Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta is a science communicator who believes in spreading the power of science in every corner of the world. She has a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree and a Master's of Science (M.Sc.) in biology and human physiology. Following her Master's degree, Sanchari went on to study a Ph.D. in human physiology. She has authored more than 10 original research articles, all of which have been published in world renowned international journals.

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