Mirror Neurons

How Mirror Neurons Can Improve Birth Support and Maternal Care Practices

Spiraling, rocking from side to side, shaking the extremities, curling the toes, changing positions constantly, chanting, moaning, and groaning, are just a few manifestations of birth givers’ state of consciousness. Do you know how to utilize mirror neurons to match birth givers’ body language, tonality, and representational system to deepen your connection, build trust and lead birth givers to optimally conduct themselves during their birth?

As birth support professionals, we’ve seen how birth givers’ mindsets and body language change when they dive deep into the birth experience and follow their instincts. Ina May Gaskin described the experience we witness in the most poetic and profound words in her book Spiritual Midwifery:  “The mother’s state of consciousness goes through a great change during the first stage of labor. This change in her consciousness must be taken into account by all the people helping her with the birth. She becomes less of an individual personality and more like an elemental force, like a tornado, a volcano, an earthquake, or a hurricane, with its own laws of behavior”.
What does it mean to take it into account? How can birth professionals consider this state of consciousness in our practice? Does it mean accepting and being at peace with it, or is there an active role here? 

We can optimize birth support practices by matching others’ body language, vocal expressions, and representational systems

The study of mirror neurons has an answer to this question. According to this study, we can optimize our communication and leadership skills based on what we know about these neurons. Mirror neurons seem involved in acts such as imitation and emulation and the complex task of empathizing with another person. Those brain neurons help newborns connect and learn by imitation.  Mirror neurons fire together in our brains when we are doing something or observing the same action being performed by another. The same area of the brain in each person is activated, helping us develop empathy and understanding of the other person’s situation. For example: when we watch our favorite NBA team playing, the same mirror neurons are firing in our brains and the players’ brains. However, while these firing neurons are activated involuntary, we can use them intentionally to establish rapport, connect, better understand, and even lead others. So how about utilizing them to optimize maternal care and birth support practices? 

Mirror Neurons and the Doula Practice 

Reflecting on my doula practice of 24 years, I know I’ve always matched my clients’ body positions or motions during childbirth. Additionally, I matched their voice by joining them in chanting or moaning loudly to connect with no words. I did it instinctively before learning the theory behind my actions. As a doula trainer, I teach my students to pause and observe the birth giver when entering the room. Then I encourage them to approach the client in a position that matches their body. This strategy creates a shared experience that helps the doula non-verbally connect with her client and understand her experience better, therefore knowing how to support her.  

However, when I became an NLP practitioner (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), I learned much more about how we can utilize calibrating (determining by criteria, not guessing) what the body language (including facial muscles and tones of voices) is telling us. We can optimize birth support practices by matching others’ body language, vocal expressions, and representational systems

The practice of sensory acuity helped me maintain intimacy with my clients during COVID and successfully transition into virtual support

During my clients’ birth, I’m now not only matching my clients to create a shared experience. I’m aware of small changes in their bodies and voice that signal an opening to my lead and my suggestions. And did you know you can establish rapport and lead teamwork with L&D nurses by matching their tonality, facial expression, and body position? These are tiny, unnoticeable gestures that create intimacy and assume collaboration. 

In addition, you can enroll clients easily by matching their representational system and body language during the interview. These are small, unnoticeable, and primarily non-verbal gestures that create intimacy in minutes. During an interview, even a virtual one, I am aware of my potential clients’ head position, tonation and volume, the pace at which they talk, and many more aspects of their presence, and I match them. The practice of sensory acuity helped me maintain intimacy with my clients during COVID and successfully transition into virtual support.

During the Transformational Birth Support Coaching yearlong program, I dedicate many meetings to understanding the theory and practicing sensory acuity. I teach my students how to utilize mirror neurons to:

  • Establish rapport in minutes
  • Enroll clients with ease
  • Connect and better understand clients’ experiences.
  • Create a shared experience to gain trust
  • Lead clients toward behavioral change that will help them achieve their desired experiences.

Mirror Neurons and Obstetric Nursing

Unlike doulas and childbirth educators, L&D nurses meet their patients for the first time during childbirth, when patients experience fear, tension, and pain. As a result, nurses must establish relationships with patients while being responsible for their safety and accountable to the system’s requirements. 

Here is how my friend, midwife Olga Libova, DNP, described the difficult situation in her review of my book: “ Walking into a room…, a nurse never knows exactly what to expect as she tries to quickly gauge the atmosphere in the room, the mood and the needs of the patient, as well as the strength of her support system. A deeper understanding of these is crucial if the nurse wants to provide the most effective patient-centered care for the mother”. 

The nurse learns to sense trust, intimacy, and mutual respect in the patient’s body language, facial expression, or intonation

Unfortunately, not many schools train nurses with the skills to calibrate with their patients to establish the long-sought partnership between patients and their care providers, known to increase the safety of care. Can you imagine the ease with which nurses would connect with patients and form partnerships if they were to practice sensory acuity? 

 In workshops for L&D nurses, I lead them in exercises with which they learn to match each other body position, breathing patterns, and vocality. They learn how to enter the room and remove barriers between themselves and their patients instead of conversing when the bed or the table is in the way. First, we ensure no partition between the nurse and patient. Then, as the nurse faces her patient, she quickly chooses one small gesture to imitate and match her patient: matching the patient in motion or breathwork until she recognizes the opening to taking the lead. This moment is when she senses trust, intimacy, and mutual respect in the patient’s body language, facial expression, or intonation. I believe that coaching tools, strategies, and sensory acuity are pathways to patient-centered care. To learn more about patient-centered care and Birth Coach Method, visit our homepage. 


Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

Neri Life-Choma

labor support tools, obstetric nursing

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