Pregnant women are being offered virtual reality (VR) headsets to help them deal with the pain of childbirth.
The headsets are designed to bring women to a state of relaxation, by helping them believe that they are – intriguingly – submerged in a herd of buffalo, or even underwater.
Women can also choose to experience what it might be like to be at the beach, or watching the Northern Lights, to escape from the reality of giving birth.
The technology is being trialled in Cardiff, but if successful it could be rolled out across Wales.
Hannah Lelii, who is due to give birth for the first time later this month, tested the kit. She told the BBC she was a “massive fan” – and likened it to “a simulator”.
“It’s genuinely 360 degrees, so when I turn, I’ve got the view that would be behind me or to the side of me,” she said. “It helps to get me in a state of relaxation.”
Choice was “a big word with mums going into labour”, Lelii added. “It might not be for everyone, it might not be for all stages of labour, but I think it’s another alternative,” she said.
Suzanne Hardacre, the head of midwifery for Cardiff and Vale health board, said VR could be a genuine alternative for pain management.
“It provides us with an opportunity to do something really different, something innovative, something that’s not being used elsewhere,” she said – and added that it could even help women who have previously experienced traumatic births.
“There’s a great opportunity particularly to use this with women in early labour, to try and help them with some breathing and relaxation and take them out of the moment.”
The University of Wales is now working with the health board to arrange a feedback session to gauge the responses of women to the headsets, which are provided by developers ‘Rescape’. Each set costs around £4000 a year.
“It’s moved slowly out of the gaming arena and now into therapies,” said co-founder Glenn Hapgood.
“A hospital stay is never an enjoyable one. So even if you look at it from a therapy point of view, just taking people away from the uncomfortable environment they’re in - it’s a very easy solution to have.”
It’s not the first time VR has been used to help people deal with pain. Headsets have also been used to help burns victims deal with the intense discomfort of having their bandages changed, as reported by the BBC last year.
Patients in Sheffield who wore a headset to immerse themselves in a virtual basketball game, as part of a trial led by Sheffield Hallam University, said they felt less pain when having bandages changed.
This is because, according to Dr Chris Graham, clinical psychologist and research fellow at the University of Leeds, it’s “tricky to pay attention to lots of things at once”.