By Kate Isaacs
What might come to mind when you think of hypnosis is a brainwashed person doing silly tricks on stage. In fact, hypnosis is a well-accepted therapy for guiding people into a meditative state of calm and focus. Hypnobirthing uses the same techniques to help mothers enter into a relaxed, self-aware state where they can follow their body’s natural instincts.
I used hypnobirthing for the births of my two boys. My first son’s birth was unmedicated and it was almost completely free from pain.
I experienced intense physical sensations, but I felt intense pain only once, for a few minutes, during the transition phase of labour. I would not have believed it except for the fact that I lived it.
My second son’s birth was completely different. For medical reasons, I was induced with Pitocin. Labour was extremely difficult and painful. But the hypnobirthing methods helped me stay calm and centred throughout. I declined pain relief, and used positive visualisations. They transformed my experience of labour. By the end of the birth I felt no pain at all.
People respond with disbelief when I tell these stories. “You just got lucky,” they say. Or, “You must have a high pain tolerance.” But there are many mums who have had birth experiences like mine. The secret: preparation and practice. Here are four ways that hypnobirthing helps women have positive births.
1. Reimagining a different possibility for birth
Women expect labour to be painful. Usually it is, but not always. Grantly Dick Read, an obstetrician who lived in the mid-1900s, observed that some women in his care gave birth with little to no pain. He developed a theory that he called the fear-tension-pain syndrome: when a labouring woman feels fear, it creates tension in her body, and that tension produces (or exacerbates) the experience of pain. His views formed the foundation of the natural childbirth movement, which was later advanced by Fernand Lamaze.
Hypnobirthing goes a step further than Lamaze, by teaching women to prepare their minds as well as their bodies. Elite athletes have long used positive imagery to master their game. Hypnobirthing teaches mothers to do the same for birth.
In hypnobirthing class at our local hospital, my husband and I learned to replace clinical birth terminology with gentler words that suggested a different possibility for birth. Instead of a labour contraction, we were taught to say surge. Instead of catching the baby, one receives the baby. The water breaking was membranes releasing.
Pain is a sensation or pressure. It’s not a birth canal, it’s a birth path. Instead of pushing, you’re breathing the baby down. Rather than dilating, a woman’s body is opening.
We were also encouraged to practise aloud with positive birth affirmations (like these and these), and with visualisations, such as imagining the cervix as a gently opening rose. We read many hypnobirthing stories, and watched numerous videos.
All this was designed to train us away from dreading labour as an inevitably painful struggle, and repattern our minds towards birth as a gentle process of allowing the uterine muscles to “work together in harmony to…nudge the baby down gently,” as one instructor says.
2. Practising relaxing, and releasing fear and tension
Stress and fear stimulate the body’s sympathetic nervous system to produce a cascade of hormones and physiological changes known as the “fight or flight” response. Hypnobirthing methods activate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, dubbed the “relaxation response.”
Hypnobirthing class taught us mothers-to-be how to relax our bodies, to release our fears of birth, and to cultivate our inner sense of calm and comfort. We learned how to induce “hypnoanalgesia,” by training our minds that the intense sensations of birth don’t have to feel painful. Finally, we learned “surge” and “birth” breathing methods to work with the body’s powerful opening and expulsive reflexes and not tense up against them.