Before I was pregnant I’d heard talk of hypnobirthing and thought it sounded wacky and not for me. To be honest I didn’t know what hypnobirthing was and like many I was put off by the name, which let’s be honest sounds a little woowoo.
But in those secretive first trimester weeks I found myself following closely a number of bloggers who were pregnant as well and many of them spoke highly of hypnobirthing and in particular The Positive Birth Company (PBC). As far as I could tell most people did hypnobirthing courses which were quite expensive. I still wasn’t sure it was for me so I decided to buy the PBC book on hypnobirthing. At worse I’d spent a tenner on a book that I didn’t read. But as soon as it arrived and I started reading I was hooked. Hypnobirthing made complete sense to the scientific part of me (before becoming a lawyer I studied human anatomy at university).
So what is hypnobirthing?
I always say to people that the strangest thing about hypnobirthing is the name. But let’s break that down – “hypno” creates ideas about hypnotism but actually it’s more akin to mindfulness. Hypnobirthing is very much rooted in physiology and intended to help you to work with the biological birth process.
We’re all conditioned to believe that birth is painful, but what if it doesn’t have to be? That’s what hypnobirthing is all about.
Hypnobirthing looks firstly at the biological process of birth – the way your muscles contract and the hormones being released. It teaches you how to work with your body through breathing and relaxing. It also helps you to tackle the mental aspects of birth, helping you to move past those mental barriers most of us have built up. It takes apart the picture of birth as this scary, painful, dramatic thing and helps you figure out how to have a beautiful, calm birth whatever that looks like for you.
Can breathing really make birth painless?
In my experience, yes. I laboured for five hours when R was born, during which I had no painkillers at all. No paracetamol. No gas and air. Just breathing in to a count of four and out for a count of eight.
I’m not telling you that as a boast. In fact, when I finally had a spinal block in theatre it felt fantastic (you can read my birth story here). But I’m telling you this to let you know that breathing can make a massive difference to your birth experience.
Now you might think that that all sounds a bit hippy-ish and woowoo (“pass me the pethidine” I hear you cry) but hear me out. Most hypnobirthing courses will start by explaining the muscular action of contractions i.e. how the two different muscle groups of the uterus work during labour.
Firstly the muscle fibres will contract to pull the uterus upwards to open up the cervix. This is the first stage of labour. Once the cervix is fully dilated the muscle fibres will contract to cause a downwards motion, pushing the baby into the birth canal. This is the second stage of labour.
So why is this important? Well, understanding the work that your muscles are doing makes sense of everything else you should be doing in labour. If you were going to the gym for a really punishing workout you’d (hopefully) keep yourself really hydrated. You would probably want to fuel your body for that workout beforehand and replenish it afterwards.
Something else you probably do at the gym is concentrate on your breathing. When you’re running on the treadmill you naturally deepen your breath to get more oxygen into your lungs and in turn to your muscles. I think most of us learnt about aerobic and anaerobic exercise in school. Granted it was possibly a while ago, so in simple terms aerobic exercise is where your body can meet the oxygen requirements of your muscles. This is your normal relaxed state. Anaerobic exercise is where your muscles are consuming more oxygen than your body can make available. When there’s not enough oxygen your body starts to produce lactic acid. You can keep going for a little while but eventually you have to stop. The build-up of lactic acid is too great and you start to feel fatigued – the “burn” that you feel when you exercise is the lactic acid building up in your muscles.
Well birth is no different to that hardcore workout – the muscles of your uterus are working really hard when you are giving birth, even if that effort is unconscious to you. And just like a workout would start to feel really hard if you didn’t take deep breaths to get as much oxygen as possible to your muscles, birth is going to be painful if you are starving your uterus of the oxygen that it needs.
It’s not just about the breathing
OK so hopefully you’re still with me. Breathing = oxygen = less painful contractions.
Sadly biology is not quite that simple. The second major part of hypnobirthing is about hormones. The first is oxytocin, which you hear a lot about when you are pregnant. Oxytocin is the love hormone. It promotes feelings of love and bonding and is an essential trigger for labour. I found it strange that the feel good hormone would be the thing that is so important for labour but there we are. Boosting oxytocin helps your labour to progress which is why doing things to make you feel good are so important during labour (side note: of the myriad of old wives tales about how to start labour the one about having sex has a grain of truth – an orgasm results in a surge of oxytocin, which is just what you want to serve your baby an eviction notice).
But oxytocin isn’t the only hormone at play during labour. Adrenaline is likely to be pumping through your body as well. Adrenaline is the “fight or flight” hormone. It puts you on edge and in a state of preparedness. And if your body is preparing to run, it diverts the blood flow to your limbs so that those muscles are supplied with plenty of oxygen. And that means the uterus is getting less blood. Less blood = less oxygen = more painful contractions.
But its more than that, surging adrenaline can slow labour right down. It’s your body’s way of making sure you don’t give birth in an unsafe environment. Unsurprisingly you don’t want high levels of adrenaline during your labour.
So where does hypnobirthing fit in?
So we’ve established the important physiological aspects of birth:
- Breathing to keep your uterus well supplied with oxygen.
- Keeping oxytocin levels high
- Keeping adrenaline levels low.
Simple? Well I don’t know about you but I’ve never been able to consciously control my hormones, hormones simply don’t work that way. Which is where hypnobirthing comes in. It gives you the tools to create a calm, relaxing environment to give birth in regardless of what your birth looks like. That final bit is important. Hypnobirthing is not all water births and zero pain management. It can totally be that if you want it to be (and if your baby plays ball). For me, it meant having the ability to embrace the changes to my birth plan and to make the theatre birth of my daughter a positive experience.
Hypnobirthing helps you to learn techniques to calm you down – keeping those adrenaline levels low. These techniques include breathing, visualisation, light-touch massage (birth partners are a big part of hypnobirthing) and mantras.
But even if that sounds a bit too woowoo for you there’s plenty hypnobirthing can still offer you. Hypnobirthing helps you and your birth partner to work through the options for birth and make it a wonderful positive experience. I found hypnobirthing really helped me to feel excited about birth. I looked forward to thinking through how I would engage each of the five senses and what I would pack in my birth bag.
Even mantras, which have never been my thing, helped me to feel calm, positive and prepared about birth. In particular the mantra of “my surges [contractions] cannot be stronger than me because they are me” really helped me to remember that my body would not create a level of pain that it couldn’t handle (in fact my experience of contractions were that they were not painful but they were tiring).
A major part of hypnobirthing is about putting you in control: Your baby, your body, your birth, your choice.
Often we are unwilling to question medical professionals – and in most cases this is completely right. But when it comes to birth there are plenty of occasions where it is important to ask questions. Those who work in maternity care openly acknowledge that birth has a standard trajectory (you are supposed to dilate 2cm every few hours) but the reality is that this doesn’t apply to all.
One of the key tools in hypnobirthing is BRAIN: Benefits; Risks; Alternatives; Intuition and Nothing. This framework helps you to work through the options presented to you to keep you in control (everyone I know who has had a traumatic birth has at some level felt that they lost control).
Here’s an example of BRAIN from my own experience of finding out my baby was breech and deciding to have a c-section:
- Benefits – c-section is a widely used procedure that generally carries lower risk to the baby than vaginal breech birth.
- Risks – c-section is not without risk. There is a higher risk of maternal mortality compared to vaginal breech birth.
- Alternatives – The alternative would have been a vaginal breech birth. (I also had an ECV to attempt to turn my baby).
- Intuition – my gut instinct was that I would rather have a c-section than a vaginal breech birth as I would rather put myself at risk than my baby.
- Nothing – If I don’t have a c-section there is a risk that I go into labour and it progresses quickly resulting in a vaginal breech birth.
I actually chose “do nothing” and waited for labour to start before I had a c-section. I knew the risks but I also wanted to give my baby an opportunity to turn. There are also benefits to labouring before a c-section. But this may look different to different people. BRAIN is simply a framework to help you take control of the decisions facing you.
Language is also important to create a positive birth. Hypnobirthing generally refers to contractions as “surges” and rather than refer to pain, you refer to intensity of surges. This is because your body immediately responds unconsciously to negative language like pain, increasing your adrenaline levels.
Does it really work?
If I’m honest I loved learning about hypnobirthing and practising the techniques during my pregnancy, right up until I found out my baby was breech and then I couldn’t really see the point. But then the wonderful Laura at Hello Baby Brighton sent me a guided meditation for breech birth and it was like opening a stuck valve. I realised that I’d been carrying a lot of tension and fear about birth that I had been trying to bury in the positivity of hypnobirthing. By admitting this, and admitting my fears I became ready to face birth. When my waters broke I genuinely felt positive and excited about birth.
During my labour I used up-breathing to breathe through my contractions and it really did help. Although labour was tiring and relentless, the contractions themselves were not actually painful. It really did feel like the burn you get from e.g. holding a squat for a really long time. The tools I learnt through hypnobirthing also really helped me to work through my changing birth preferences and create a positive environment in theatre.
How do I learn about hypnobirthing?
So I started by buying The Positive Birth Company book on hypnobirthing and I genuinely can’t recommend it highly enough. I have friends who used a different popular hypnobirthing book who have had mixed birthing experiences but everyone I know who has used PBC has had a positive experience.
As I knew N wouldn’t read the book I also ended up purchasing the PBC online course when it was on sale. The course includes videos that go through the same information as the book (although personally I found the book much more detailed) and gives access to guided meditations, relaxations and mantras. It also gives you access to a Facebook group that is filled with positive birth stories.
I hope that that has given you an overview about hypnobirthing and why it is so brilliant. Let me know if hypnobirthing helped you too.