What is hypnobirthing?
In a way this question is a little like, ‘how long is a piece of string’ in that it really depends on the situation and what is it being used for!
To sum it up in a nutshell, hypnobirthing is a system of birth preparation that teaches women to release any fear or anxiety they hold about childbirth and that gives them a toolkit of techniques to use during their pregnancy and birth to help them remain relaxed.
The better hypnobirthing courses should be doing this in conjunction with providing comprehensive information about the labour process, enabling women and their birth partners to be fully educated about their options. Why is this important? Because sometimes birth has its own wonderful journey and might not go according to ‘plan’ and in order to deal with that, to be able to ‘own’ our labour, we need to understand the sorts of choices that may arise and have the knowledge to make our own decisions about them.
How does hypnobirthing work?
There are a lot of misconceptions about hypnobirthing, the main one being that it’s the latest kooky or a load of new age mumbo-jumbo. In fact it’s based on proven hypnotherapy techniques. Hypnosis and hypnotherapy have been around for years (as far back as the 1800s) and was endorsed by the British Medical Association in the 1950’s as an effective therapeutic tool which was “frequently effective in relieving pain, procuring sleep, and alleviating many functional ailments.”
Very simply, it works by creating a sense of deep relaxation that enables the unconscious mind to accept ideas and suggestions to rework the way we feel about something. It is not something that can be done to you against your will, and it is not putting you into a trance. You will be aware of everything that is being said and you’re not made to do anything silly (like making chicken noises – it’s not stage hypnosis!)
Hypnotherapy can be used for so many different things; it can be used to overcome phobias, it can be used to help overcome addictions or repetitive thoughts and it can be used as a way of controlling pain in minor procedures. In hypnobirthing we can use it for all of these things!
Used in pregnancy it helps release all of the social conditioning that we receive about how terrifying childbirth is and to remove the repetitive thoughts that might go through our head about how we can’t do, that our bodies will fail us, that we are not strong enough.
As a society we do not hear or see honest childbirth portrayals. The examples we see on tv are either on films or soaps, where the women’s waters break, she immediately goes into labour, and after an extremely dramatic birth (usually involving a ‘life-threatening’ issue such as breech birth or pre-eclampsia) the baby is born shortly after the whole thing starting. In One Born Every Minute they may show real life labours, but they are incredibly dramatized! Women are screaming on the bed (on their backs), call buttons are being pushed, midwives are running, and the narrator explains in grave tones (in case we missed it) that this is a serious situation and bad things could happen.
Yes some labours look like this. But lots don’t.
Lots of women have calm births in the water, lots of women will be vocalising while walking around or swaying but the vocalisation is power, lots of women will be on the bed of their own choice but quiet and in their zone, lots of women will birth at home with zero drama. Real life is a whole host of situations that simply do not resemble what we see on tv or what we have drummed into us by the media.
So in hypnobirthing we strip this away, and concentrate on allowing our body to do what it’s designed to do. We explain what birth looks like, and how our bodies work, and how we can help them to work the most effectively during labour.
During labour we can use hypnobirthing to help us utilise the mind-body connection as a comfort measure.
The mind-body what now?
The mind-body connection. This is the principle that our body simply cannot function without our brain. Without a brain we are simply a hunk of meat. And therefore, where our brain leads our body follows!
We can train our subconscious to be able to quickly enter a state of deep relaxation through practice (and the key to hypnobirthing is practice, practice, practice) and by keeping our mind and our body relaxed we are naturally inclined to better manage our contractions. The fear – tension – pain cycle is a self-reinforcing cycle, whereby when we feel fear our natural instinct is to tense our muscles and this tension causes us to feel pain during a contraction. Due to the pain, we then fear the next contraction and our body tenses further leading to further pain. And so the cycle continues. By reducing the tension (both physical and mental) our body is naturally more relaxed which allows our muscles to glide more easily (and remember our uterus is a giant muscle).
There is another reason that we really don’t want to feel fear or tension during labour, and that is to do with our hormones.
Our bodies are miracles. There is a careful balance of hormones at play (starting from conception through to the trigger that starts labour) and these hormones were historically what kept us safe in childbirth.
Let me tell you a true story...
Cavemum-to-be is sat in her cave in front of the fire one evening. It’s lovely and warm and she’s just had a very tasty barbecued mammoth burger and fried nettles. Cavedad is down the communal firepit with his mates so she’s cave alone. Suddenly from her rounded belly she starts to feel surges. Labour has started, she’s very excited! She does some walking and grunting, and she’s rocking this labour, feeling very happy with high oxytocin and endorphin levels (she’s done her antenatal training and knows these two hormones are super important!).
But then, a snarling sabre-toothed cat arrives at the mouth of cavemum’s cave! Instantly cavemum’s oxytocin levels drop as she gets a massive adrenalin surge! Her surges stop, she wonders whether to run away or fight the big cat. She makes a decision and grabs her spear. Sabre-toothed kitty takes one look and decides to head elsewhere.
Cavemum sounds the horn to get cavedad back, pulls the boulder closed on her cave, makes a cup of nettle tea and sets about rebuilding her oxytocin levels.
Cavedad gets back, gives her a footrub and a massage. It takes a little while but eventually her contractions start again, she labours through the night and has a perfect cave baby, born at home in the cosy cave.
I may have taken a little bit of artistic licence in the retelling of this story. But the point is to highlight that our bodies in labour were made to protect us from danger. Rather than having us birthing and unable to escape, mother nature provided us with a safety net that stopped labour if we needed it to. We’re very unlikely to be eaten by sabre-toothed cats these days(!) but our hormones still do the job they used to. Therefore, as soon as our body senses trouble (even if the threat is perceived rather than real) it will ramp up our adenaline production, switch off our oxytocin production, and labour slows down or grinds to a halt, which is just what we don’t want to happen.
So, to summarise, during labour hypnobirthing works by helping us to remain calm. This calm means that ideally we will manage our contractions with more comfort (we try not to use the word ‘pain’ as when we do our body looks for the source) and will help us to have high oxytocin levels which are responsible for producing our contractions as well as being nature’s pain relief.
Is it only for natural births or home births?
Nope, and this is one of the biggest misconceptions. At home our oxytocin levels are naturally higher as we are in our own environment. Setting foot in the hospital instantly causes most women’s oxytocin levels to drop and their adrenalin to rise because it is an alien environment. Add to that any type of intervention in birth, and our body is having to work incredibly hard to maintain the oxytocin and endorphin levels that are beneficial to us. So hypnobirthing comes into its own in these situations. It’s a tool that can be used to help us remain calm and make the best decisions for us in any circumstance.
My friend/colleague/random stranger on the bus used hypnobirthing and says it doesn’t work?
When you read birth stories from women who have had positive experiences with hypnobirthing, the one thing that they usually say is that they practiced a lot. It doesn’t matter whether you read a book or do a course, without practice you are unlikely to be able to access the state of deep relaxation as easily. It is a technique and that needs to be learnt.
Also, some women feel that because they didn’t have ‘gentle’ waterbirths, using hypnobirthing the whole way through they have failed at hypnobirthing (and therefore hypnobirthing has failed them). Birth is different for every woman and no matter how they have given birth they haven’t failed. Hypnobirthing doesn’t always look the way you expect to, but if it has been useful, during any part of your pregnancy and labour, then it has done it’s job.
In the same way that some women use a TENS machine the whole way through, and that works fine for them, and others will use a birthing ball and then gas and air, and then still others will use an epidural from as soon as they are able, hypnobirthing is one element in your toolkit to be used as you see fit. With practice it may well be enough to see you all the way through to delivering your baby with no other relief, but if it doesn’t then that’s ok too.
The key is that it is a full program, providing you with a robust antenatal education and giving you techniques to pick up and use when you want to.