What is hypnobirthing?
Everyone's talking about hypnobirthing but what is it exactly - and can it really help you chant your way to a calmer birth?
Today we can pretty much choose where, how and (to an extent) even when we want to deliver our babies. Home births, water births, midwife-led care and elective C-sections are all up for grabs. Despite this, few feel we can choose a gentle birth. Too often both fiction and first-hand accounts lead us to think of it as painful, exhausting, even stressful. Is there a way to ease this?
Cue hypnobirthing, a form of selfhypnosis that devotees claim helps women remain calm, in control and confident about their body’s innate ability to birth their baby without medical intervention. Don’t let the name fool you; we know the ‘hypno’ bit sounds a little touchy-feely but in fact it draws on scientific principles of biology, physiology and neuroscience.
‘I get that it conjures up images of Paul McKenna and Enya albums,’ says Hollie de Cruz, a birth coach and founder of London Hypnobirthing. ‘But we focus on helping women to create positive birth experiences, rather than pushing the idea of a “perfect” birth. There’s no vagina-whispering, Kumbaya-singing, goddess-channelling nonsense, just simple but specific deep relaxation techniques to help you have a calm, empowering birth.’
The idea dates back to 1913 when a young doctor, Grantly Dick-Read, attended a birth in the London slums. The mother refused pain relief and delivered her baby quickly, later reportedly saying, ‘It didn’t hurt. It wasn’t meant to, doctor, was it?’ Grantly developed the theory that fear and tension actually cause labour pains. Later, and by then an eminent obstetrician, he wrote Childbirth Without Fear, first published in 1942 and still in print today (£11.99, Pinter & Martin). This sowed the seeds of both the natural birth movement and the National Childbirth Trust.
It may sound too good to be true, but the evidence is compelling, so much so that even the British Medical Association says that, in suitable subjects, ‘self-hypnosis is an effective method of relieving pain in childbirth’ and proposes that all doctors should train in hypnotherapy.
‘Hypnobirthing is where water birthing was 20 years ago,’ says Teri Gavin-Jones, a midwife and hypnobirth trainer at the Colchester Hospital University. ‘Back then, birthing pools were considered a bit weird but now every trust in the country offers water births. Give it ten years and hypnobirthing will be standard practice.’
How does it work?
For labour to go smoothly the uterus needs lots of oxygenated blood and the release of birthing hormones to help the muscles contract efficiently. However, stress and anxiety can set in place a cascade of events that experts call the fear-tension-painsyndrome of childbirth, so an anxious mum-to-be releases stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) that trigger the fight or flight response. This diverts blood away from where it’s needed in her uterus, sending it instead to arms and legs. To counter these responses, hypnobirthing teaches mothers to relax and allow the body to labour instinctively.
Is it for me?
The most common misconception around hypnosis is that it’s intended only for home births, but it can be used for any delivery – even inductions or C-sections. But let’s not oversell it, hey? ‘It doesn’t offer you a painfree birth,’ says Sophie Fletcher, author of Mindful Hypnobirthing (£14.99, Vermilion). ‘What we can do is promise that it will help you towards your best birth.’
It is particularly helpful if:
- The thought of birth scares you
- You are keen to have a natural birth without painkillers or an epidural
- You like to be in control of things
- You have had a disappointing or difficult previous delivery
- You had a previous C-section and would like a VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean).
Many mums-to-be admit to being a little cynical at the outset. Support, however, is key and most teachers like you to attend classes with your birth partner. Their help is invaluable, both in preparing for labour and in the delivery room, when they can encourage you to be as relaxed as possible. ‘Most men are more sceptical than their partners,’ says blogger and midwife Paris Doula (doulaparis.com).
‘There is an initial fear of “pseudo-spiritual brainwashing” but they soon realise that hypnobirthing is rooted in science and common sense. By the end of the course partners often appreciate that they have a very defined support role to play and are grateful that they can be useful and helpful during the birthing process.’ Such an active role in delivery also helps them build a closer bond with their baby.
What can you expect?
There are a variety of approaches but they all share the same philosophy: nature intended women to give birth relatively easily, but the fear of childbirth incites physical pain. ‘We have convinced ourselves that labour is risky,’ says Marie Mongan, founder of HypnoBirthing – The Mongan Method.
‘We start to think about what may go wrong,’ concurs Lesley Gilchrist, a midwife and author of The Bump, Birth and Baby Bible (£12.99, Bespoke Birthing Publications). ‘If you can limit that, you go some way to enabling your body to labour more effectively. You are taught methods including breathing, deep relaxation and visualisation, as well as positive thought processes and language.’
Well-used exercises include:
- Rainbow Relaxation – in turn, picture objects of different colours, such as blue water, yellow corn, red poppies and so on
- Disappearing Letters – close your eyes and picture each letter of the alphabet moving across your eyes and out of sight
- Deepening Relaxation – count down from 100 with your birth partner. They start by saying, ‘A hundred,’ and you reply, ‘A hundred double my relaxation.’ Then they say ‘Ninety-nine,’ and you reply ‘Ninety-nine double my relaxation.’ Continue until your response is slurred, or you don’t respond at all
- Visualisation – designed to help open and dilate your cervix with powerful, suggestive imagery. Think: a blossoming rose or even soft, rippling ribbons.
Aim to start your chosen class in your second trimester, ideally between 25 and 29 weeks. This gives you plenty of time to learn the hypnobirthing scripts and techniques that are most beneficial.
Many couples attend courses, seminars or weekend workshops where they learn key principles of how to relax and control fears surrounding childbirth. These are supplemented with take-home CDs of recorded affirmations. Couples listen to these in the run-up to their baby’s birth so the empowering mantras lodge in the subconscious. It is also possible to study at home, following an online programme. Whichever you choose, it’s important to put in the hours to fully familiarise yourself with hypnobirthing’s founding principles. There really are no shortcuts and, as with so many things, the best outcome depends on lots of practice.
Language plays a huge role, and key words and phrases are used to help mums-to-be feel more positive about their ability to give birth. So you’ll swap contractions for ‘surges’, dilating for ‘blossoming’ and pushing for ‘birth breathing’. You’ll also be encouraged to master birth-affirming mantras, such as:
- I relax and my baby relaxes
- I accept all sensations. Each one means we’re one step closer to meeting our baby
- I loosen, open, release
- Women all over the world are birthing with me
- I accept whatever path our baby’s birth takes with confidence
Rest assured, you’ll soon work out what works best and rings true for you.
As Sophie Fletcher so temptingly puts it, hypnobirthing can help to create ‘a strong mum, a confident dad and a calm baby,’ with the entire family benefiting physically as well as emotionally. The possible benefits include everything from having a shorter labour with less likelihood of medical intervention, leading to a reduced risk of postnatal depression, to a baby with a higher APGAR score who sleeps and feeds well and is more relaxed in the months after delivery.
At Gurgle we’re all for anything that empowers mums, but we’re pragmatists too: sometimes things don’t go to plan and even hypnotherapy can’t always alter that. It can, however, arm you with the tools to stay calm and focused – and that’s a huge plus.
Keen to give it a go? Then these are the experts you really need to know:
- Katharine Graves, founder of KGHY hypnobirthing (kghypnobirthing.com) and author of The Hypnobirthing Book: An Inspirational Guide for a Calm, Confident, Natural Birth, £10.17 (Katharine Publishing)
- Lesley Gilchrist, midwife and founder of bespokebirthing.co.uk
- Hollie de Cruz, founder of London Hypnobirthing (londonhypnobirthing.co.uk)
- Sophie Fletcher, founder of Mindful Mamma Hypnobirthing classes (mindfulmamma.co.uk); she also offers sessions via Skype
- Emma Harwood-Jones, founder of Together Birthing (togetherbirthing.com)
- The Mongan Method, available online at hypnobirthing-uk.com or see Hypnobirthing The Mongan Method on YouTube
- And of course there’s an app. Birth Made Easy offers hypnobirthing downloads for every eventuality from natural birth to C-sections, and even offers help if your baby is overdue. Find it on iTunes or at Google Play.