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Faculty Spotlight: Music for Midwives

By UMS Education

Written by Veronica Dittman Stanich

When Ruth Zielinski applied for a UMS Course Development Grant, she envisioned a musical experience for her upper-level midwifery students.

As Clinical Associate Professor in the School of Nursing and Lead for the University of Michigan’s Midwifery Program, Zielinski reasoned that music as therapy during labor and birth is consistent with her course’s focus on physiologic, or “natural” birth. Moreover, music would require students to be still and listen, a significant task in a program whose days are filled with lecture, note-taking, discussion, and clinical practice.

Through discussions with UMS’s Campus Engagement Specialist Shannon Fitzsimons-Moen and me, Zielinski’s plans for the experience expanded to include dance. Music and dance are—perhaps surprisingly—a natural fit with midwifery. Numerous studies illustrate the effects of music on a laboring mother, including decreased pain, anxiety, and postpartum depression; increased satisfaction with the birthing experience; and even a shortened duration for labor. Likewise, an increasing body of research points to a similar suite of positive effects for mothers who move—walking or rocking their hips—during labor.
U-M Midwifery Program Studetns
For Zielinski’s Course Development Grant, Fitzsimons-Moen arranged a specially designed music-and-dance workshop for student midwives. Kris Danford, Assistant Professor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, led the first session, sharing her research into vocalization during labor. Her insights into breath and the voice afforded the students—a tight-knit group who had just spent their first two weeks in actual clinical labor and delivery settings—the opportunity to share their recent experiences of music and vocalization in these settings. Together they analyzed the various effects music had on the patients, and on the attending midwives, in these instances. Students also shared playlists they had constructed for labor, considering the characteristics of music they had chosen for separate “upbeat labor,” “slow down labor,” and “pissed off labor” playlists.

For the workshop’s second session, I discussed with students how dance-based concepts choreography, rehearsal, and improvisation might be operative in their work. Students quickly adopted these concepts as metaphors, applying them both to expectant mothers and to themselves. For example, mothers-to-be often have expectations of a tightly choreographed birthing plan, and midwives can think of their oft-rehearsed movements as a toolkit upon which to draw when the situation calls for improvisation.

We also experimented with variations on walking and pelvic rocking, using structured improvisation as an opportunity to really listen to our bodies as we explored both familiar and unfamiliar sensations. Students reported that the experience not only provided them with a family of movements to share with patients; it also gave them permission to move themselves, reconnecting with their own bodies in a way that was positive and freeing. The concept of permission recurred throughout the movement session, provoking a discussion of the culture of different labor-and-delivery settings, and of how variations in culture might affect mothers’ feelings of inhibition around vocalization and movement. Students extended the dance metaphor to account for audience—the various watchers who are often present in these settings, and may contribute to a laboring mother’s inhibitions.

Zielinski’s midwifery students left the workshop with plans to incorporate elements of it into their work, both in antenatal visits and during labor and birth. The Course Development Grant also provides a different sort of music and dance experience: a ticket for each of them to any UMS event this semester.

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