HypnoBirthing: Instinctive Birthing through Relaxation
by Tracy Donegan

[Editor's note: This article first appeared in The Birthkit Issue 50, Summer 2006.]

Birthkeepers of the world are divided on whether pain does or does not have to exist in birth; each of us is firm in our stance that our belief is right. For many the notion of comfortable or even joyful birthing still remains just outside of our grasp. Undoubtedly millions of women have experienced painful birth and the idea that birth must be painful is widely accepted. Mothers who have comfortable or even painless births are dismissed as lucky, delusional or having a really high pain threshold. Women who openly plan a drug-free birth are smirked at with knowing glances of "just you wait…you'll be begging for an epidural" and warned that no medals are given for going without.

HypnoBirthing is a unique antenatal program that teaches simple but specific self-hypnosis and relaxation techniques for an easier, more gentle birth that is often accompanied by a significant reduction in pain. HypnoBirthing is not about "training mothers to give birth"—when undisturbed we already know how to do that instinctively. HypnoBirthing is about getting rid of fear and allowing our bodies and minds to relax so we can birth our babies gently. To quote the much beloved Jeannine Parvati Baker's article "Instinctive Birth":

When walking a labyrinth, sometimes it looks as if we are going away from the center, even backwards. Yet, eventually all of the twists and turns bring us to the destination. Progress cannot be measured in that realm. The journey is most important because, once arrival at the center is achieved, one must walk to get back out again. If you give up, you might feel lost, for in the Western myth of the labyrinth, the Minotaur at the center holds the secret of how to transform fear into the power to give birth. (Midwifery Today Issue 68, Winter 2003, p. 16.)

We know that labour progresses well in an undisturbed birth, especially when the mother feels safe so her primal brain can take over. We don't need training to give birth, but in this fast-paced world we definitely have lost the ability to relax. For mothers especially, life always seems to get in the way of the "indulgence" of true relaxation and mindfulness.

In HypnoBirthing, couples realize that severe pain does not need to accompany normal labour. HypnoBirthing, like any kind of relaxation, is perfect for homebirth as well as hospital birth. A common misconception for homebirth moms is that the pain of labour is necessary and even empowering. Yes, pain is a great communicator when something is wrong, but in a normal labour, pain does not have to be present. In HypnoBirthing we use a much softer language—we don't experience contractions, but surges. The word "contraction" creates an image of contracting—or tightening; HypnoBirthing couples focus on releasing and relaxing. Our membranes don't rupture—they release. Mothers experience a birth show instead of a bloody show.

How does it work? The muscles of the uterus were designed to give birth. Why would the uterus be the only muscle in the body that hurts when it's doing exactly what it was designed to do? The response that I often hear is, "Well, we don't use the uterus every day." So let's follow the logic of that idea.

Have you ever done a new activity—like going to the gym or raking leaves in your garden—something requiring some physical effort that you've never done before or not in a long time? While you are doing the activity the muscles don't hurt; but two days later you're soaking in a lavender bath for hours trying to ease the pain of muscles that you never knew existed. Then shouldn't labour only hurt two days after birth?

Basic physiology tells us that fear increases adrenaline in the body which creates a physical reaction by activating the fight/flight response. This redirects blood flow away from our organs to the limbs. The uterus is not a defensive organ and, just like the heart, cannot work effectively, comfortably and painlessly when blood is restricted and the muscles spasm. When adrenaline is present the body's built-in epidural (endorphins) can't do its work and it slows the release of oxytocin needed to help labour progress.

Every thought we have creates a physically detectable response in the body. Have you ever been embarrassed by someone or something? Blood races to your cheeks: Even years later just the thought of that mortifying event can recreate the same physical response in your face in seconds. Remember preparing for an interview or attending your first birth? You may get butterflies in your stomach, a dry mouth and clammy palms just by thinking about the experience.

Why is birth only painful for humans? If you've ever had a dog or cat giving birth you may notice that they seek out a quiet undisturbed location and usually show no dramatic displays of discomfort. I am not aware of any canine antenatal classes and I haven't seen a copy of What to Expect When You're Expecting—for Cats (yet!).

As birthkeepers most of us have believed that birthing a baby involves hours (sometimes days) of painful work. It is something to just "get through" and rarely an event that women look forward to. I believed this before I learnt about HypnoBirthing. Even women who plan on drug-free births prepare themselves to "embrace" the pain. As Jan Tritten stated in her editorial in MT Issue 74, Summer 2005, "At birth we are unblessed with a thinking mind. As adults, our minds become one of our biggest obstacles in pregnancy and birth. We listen to others, watch "Baby Story" on television, hear of cesarean rates and the ease of epidurals and completely lose our ability to do the task for which our bodies were supernaturally designed."

When a woman repeatedly absorbs the idea that giving birth is very painful and must be medically managed, it becomes true. For a long time we believed the earth was flat—but was it the truth? I often hear that the pain is there so that mothers know they are about to give birth and they can get to a safe place—so that their babies don't just drop out on the supermarket floor. HypnoBirthing mothers choose how they will experience the sensations of the uterus surging—some experience it as menstrual pain or strong Braxton-Hicks, i.e., a sensation that is not perceived as pain.

Another popular belief is that mothers who birth through painful labours are somehow transformed into confident, strong, empowered mothers. But what of the mothers who birth without discomfort: Are they less empowered, less confident mothers? Does the pain of birth bring about this transformation in the mother or does the experience of being fully present in mind, body and soul and birthing instinctively bring about new growth?

What is hypnosis? Like a computer the subconscious mind holds good programs and bad ones (horror stories of birth). Doing hypnosis is like running a virus scan on your computer—it finds corrupt programs or those that need to be upgraded, such as the belief that birth will be painful.

Your HypnoBirthing practitioner has no control over you; you decide to accept the suggestion that birth can be gentle and easy. Nobody can make you do anything you wouldn't normally do. So you can rest assured that neither you nor your partner will leave the class barking like a dog. All hypnosis is self-hypnosis; you are always giving consent to let these things happen to you. Your HypnoBirthing practitioner simply guides you into a state of self-hypnosis. You are always in control and you have to want the suggestion to work.

Another misconception about HypnoBirthing is that we teach a technique known as dissociation or distraction. We firmly believe that pain does not need to exist in a normal birth, but when pain does exist you don't try to distract from it but listen to the body. Pain communicates that something isn't quite right and needs to be attended to. In my own experiences mums who have learnt how to relax themselves very quickly and easily yet have felt the need for an epidural have had malpresented babies: e.g., persistent direct occipitoposterior positions and with one couple, a brow presentation (and all hospital births). They are very in tune with the signals their bodies are giving them.

Our goal isn't pain-free birth but the confidence to birth free from fear—which has the added benefit of increased endorphin production. I know this is a huge leap of faith for birthkeepers—when I learnt about HypnoBirthing as a doula I thought it was a gimmick and felt insulted as a woman and mother that once again we were trying to "train" mothers to give birth and further add to the doubt that women already have in their bodies to perform this wonderful miracle.

Since then I have seen the calm and relaxed births—mothers smiling through their surges—and I've seen full inductions with every intervention in the book; yet the vast majority of couples feel HypnoBirthing helped them get rid of the fear, increased their confidence and made their births really positive experiences.

I once worked with a mom who called me one evening very distressed (at 32 weeks) saying HypnoBirthing wasn't working for her. She had been practicing (listening to her CD) every day and repeating her birth affirmations (positive statements about birth), yet throughout the day she'd had a pain that just wouldn't go away. I suggested she call her doctor and the next day the relieved mom called me to tell me she had a UTI. No amount of relaxation or deep breathing will stop this kind of pain—pain is alerting us to something not normal going on in the body. This mom went on to have a lovely gentle birth with only the sensation of menstrual cramps. Had HypnoBirthing been only about distraction from pain then the ending to this story might not have been so wonderful.

About 70% of HypnoBirthing moms need no pain medication. As long as a mother is having a normal birth, with confidence and free from fear, birth need not be painful. HypnoBirthing mothers don't need to be distracted from any part of the birth experience. They are fully aware and totally engaged in the experience. In HypnoBirthing we trust in the body's natural ability to birth gently and easily—if we can just get out of our own way and let our bodies get on with the work of birthing.

To learn more about HypnoBirthing visit www.HypnoBirthing.com.

Tracy Donegan is a Certified Doula, HypnoBirthing educator and mother, the author of The Better Birth Book: Taking the Mystery (And Fear) Out of Childbirth (March 2006, Liffey Press) and a regular contributor to several Asian and European parenting magazines. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Tracy has lived since 1996 in the US and Asia. Tracy recently returned to Dublin to establish the first Doula service in Ireland. Passionate about birth and its effects on both the mother and newborn, Tracy also runs the Irish chapter of the International Caesarean Awareness Network (ICAN), a support group for anyone negatively affected by an unplanned caesarean.


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