Picture giving birth. Where does your mind take you?
To images of stark, sterile hospitals with strip lighting and a person clad in a cold blue gown, legs akimbo, face drenched in sweat and howling with the animalistic fervour as though the devil himself is twisting her intestines is what most of us would probably say.
Now see this. A small room, ambiently lit. Botanical eyculptus is heavy in the air and chubby white candles cast a glow, as a heavily pregnant woman listens to a jazzy playlist while sitting in a birthing pool.
Sound a little too idyllic to be true? Welcome to hypnobirthing: the labour practice reportedly used by Kate Middleton, adored by Fearne Cotton and loved by Jessica Alba, that wants to change the way you bring life into the world. Hypnobirthing: what you need to know and advice from women who've used it
What is hypnobirthing?
Okay. So what exactly is hypnobirthing – and is it exclusively for the chanting and chakras set?
'Hypnobirthing is a form of antenatal education that is evidence-based and logical,' explains Siobhan Miller, a hypnobirthing teacher and the founder of The Positive Birth Company.
'It's about understanding how your muscles and hormones work during labour, to make it a positive experience.'
By making use of visualisations, guided relaxation techniques and affirmations (as opposed to the sort of 'hypnosis' you associate with being counted out of the room, Derren Brown-style) to make women feel more in control of their birthing experience, making it more relaxing and, ultimately, less painful.
What is involved in hypnobirthing?
At the core, the idea is to coach yourself into being as relaxed as possible when you deliver your baby.
Sure, that's nice. But why does it matter?
Let's break it dow. During labour, your body produces a chemical called oxytocin. This functions as a natural pain relief and helps your labour to pass more quickly.
However. Stress hormones (think: cortisol and adrenaline) inhibit its production – which may mean that your birth lasts longer – and is therefore more pain-filled – than if stress hadn't occurred.
The theory is based on the work of British obstetrician, Dr Grantley Dick-Reid, who published a book titled Childbirth Without Fear, in 1933.
Here, he posited that being scared in labour diverts blood and oxygen away from the uterus. A calm state, alternatively, means that the uterine muscles relax – allowing the production of oxytocin.
But, as we know: 'Most births are stressful,' elaborates Miller. 'Busy hospitals, things going wrong, you not understanding what's happening.'
Is hypnobirthing proven to work?
Anecdotally, you can't swing a dirty nappy for women eager to share their positive experiences of hypnobirthing.
The data, right now, is patchy, however. A 2015 NHS study into self-hypnosis concluded that these techniques did not make a difference to the pain relief required or the method of birth (natural, instrumental or c-section) compared to a control group – though feelings of anxiety were shown to be reduced.
Meanwhile, a little Australian study of 77 women in 2006 found that women using hypnobirthing techniques were less likely to have an epidural versus a control group, at 36% versus 53%.
When it comes to hard science, this area is very much pending further analysis.
What happens at a hypnobirthing class?
Miller's classes see a group of expectant mothers – and their partners, if they want – to spend a weekend in classes, which are divided into themes.
The first part digs into the science of labour: the anatomy of the body, what changes, what triggers 'surges' (hypobirthing speak for contractions, a term which isn't used because of the negative connotations).
Next comes chill techniques, like creating a birthing environment that feels calm – whether that's in hospital or at home. Playlists, specific lighting and essential oils are all popular choices.
Affirmations, in which you might repeat to yourself that 'you've got this,' or 'my body is amazing,' are used in the run-up to the birth.
How much does hypnobirthing cost?
Well, you can buy yourself books and CDs for under a tenner.
If, however, you want to go to a class, you're looking at more like £300. The Positive Birth Company's 12 hours-worth of sessions will set you back £325.
What's it like to experience hypnobirthing during pregnancy?
'It's a hard, intense thing – but ultimately empowering. I think there's a misconception that hypnobirthing is about pain relief – but it's to do with allowing your body to do what it has evolved to do and working with it.'
'My hypnobirth transformed how I think about labour' Jessica, 34, London
The birth of my first son, Remi, was traumatic. It took five months for me to physically heal and, during it, I felt really out of control – I didn't understand what was happening and felt disconnected from my body, in the hands of the medical team. When I was pregnant with my second, Beau, I knew I wanted things to be different.
A friend recommended a course with The Yes Mum [a London-based Hypnobirthing company], which I went on at 30 weeks pregnant.
In the first class I learnt about my anatomy and the hormones at play late in pregnancy and during labour. I walked away with my husband saying 'why do they not teach this at school?'
I am a super logical person and worked in strategy in the City for ten years – so I did have reservations about it being a bit hippy-ish. But it felt rooted in science and the impact of birth on your physiology – that you need to feel safe for your body to do what it's evolved to do.
In the second session, we learnt about techniques to get into the right frame of mind for birth, light touch massage for relaxation, guided meditation, positive visualisation and environmental association. I started using an electric essential oil diffuser at night, so that I associated the smell with my bedroom. I then took it into hospital with me for the birth, as a way to relax me.
I also listened to affirmations every day, from 30 weeks onwards. It was a recording saying things like ‘my baby’s birth will be easy because I am so relaxed’ which I'd play in the kitchen or listen to on my commute to work. I then listened to them again during my labour.
Of course, in retrospect my labour hurt, but it isn’t constant and isn’t unbearable. Hypnobirthing helped me to reframe the sensations of labour, to move away from thinking about them as pain and observe them as my body working to get my baby out. I didn't need any pain relief.
If I had to describe what a contraction feels like, I’d say a really, really bad period pain but I wasn’t focused on the sensation, but hearing an affirmation telling me my contractions couldn’t overwhelm or be stronger than me because they were me, my body.
We turned the lights down low in the hospital, had music playing and the essential oil diffuser going.
I know that your second birth tends to be easier than your first, but this was in a whole different stratosphere of experience.
'My overall experience was not a positive one,' Grace, 35, Somerset
Before the birth of my son three years ago, I took some hypnobirthing classes.
While I think that the practice provides you with plenty of tools that are incredibly beneficial – for both life and childbirth – my overall experience was not a positive one.
While I found that the impetus on keeping calm, through methods of breathing and a general feeling of positivity rather than fear to be helpful, I didn't have a straightforward birth.
My son shifted position, so we were back to back, and effectively became stuck and I did not feel like hypnobirthing had prepared me sufficiently for when things go wrong.
There can be a feeling of demonisation around pain relief and ‘the cascade of intervention’ within hypnobirthing teaching – both of which are unavoidable and incredibly beneficial for many.
When I had to rely on both, I did not feel I had the information I needed about either, as my hypnobirthing teacher had actively encouraged us to not read on what she deemed to be ‘negative’ birth stories.
I’ve found myself reluctant to recommend hypnobirthing to friends who have since gotten pregnant – but certainly encourage them to explore developing techniques of breathing for relaxation, which many pregnancy yoga classes include.
*Name has been changed
Hypnobirthing UK companies to try
- The Dream Birth company, London
- The Positive Birth Company, South-West London, Newton Abbot, Devon (Torbay and Exeter), Birmingham and Brighton.
- York Hypnobirthing, North Yorkshire
- The Wise Hippo, Manchester and Cheshire
- Positive Birth Scotland, Edinburgh
- You, Me and Baby, Cardiff
- The Mother Hut, Leeds and Bradford
- Hypnobirthing Belfast, Belfast
Now you're clued up on hypnobirthing, try this low intensity workout at home, for post-natal mums.
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