Why Hypnobirthing has Earned its Place in Mainstream Childbirth

on 05 August 2019

Giving birth is one of life’s most incredible miracles but while the birth of a child is a precious moment, stories of painful and laborious childbirths abound. Hypnobirthing, which employs hypnotherapy techniques to ensure that birth unfolds as nature intended, seeks to eliminate fear which practitioners believe is the link between pain and childbirth. And while you might be forgiven for thinking of hypnobirthing as an antenatal practice reserved for tree-hugging, placenta-guzzling purists, it is one that has earned a respectable place among other antenatal practices.

Its popularity comes at a time when studies are endlessly churning out reports of ‘red flag problems’, derived from staffing issues under a strained system. Is it any wonder more parents are shunning conventional births in favour of a more natural and holistic experience?

Throughout history, the shift of childbirth to the confines of systematic healthcare has always been dubious.

Before the 1700s, midwives typically treated pregnant women based on their own maternal experience. It wasn’t until the 18th century that doctors, traditionally male, began to intervene. At the time obstetrics had not been widely studied, and so doctors served as little more than a status symbol for upper-class families. Their ruthless surgical procedures were largely responsible for significant mortality rates in childbirth, including the rampant spread of Puerperal Fever spanning the 18th and 19th century.

The medical institution gradually became standardised and hygiene practices put in place. By the 1920s the maternal death rate began to steadily decline, though risky procedures and interventions such as the use of crude instruments and heavy sedation replaced one after the other. Alarmingly, as late as the 1970s, smoking was encouraged for relaxation purposes and Guinness was prescribed to boost iron levels.

Meanwhile in 1933, a British obstetrician named Grantley Dick Reid was pioneering a childbirth programme in which nature took precedence. The programme, in which he taught women relaxation techniques to eliminate tension and ultimately fear, is what we know as hypnobirthing today.

Taking heed of Reid from afar was U.S. born Marie Mongan, the first known mother to insist on a natural birth in hospital in the late 50s. After much resistance by maternity staff, she was permitted to deliver her third child free of drugs and, equally unheard of in those days, alongside her husband. The phenomenon spread soon after Mongan founded The Hypnobirthing Institute, the first school of its kind, in 1989.

While the “hypno” part of the word might conjure images of unsuspecting subjects charging about like monkeys, in this instance hypnosis is not about putting someone in a trance but helping them to release any tension which could cause birth to be more painful. The techniques are designed to allow the subconscious mind to take the driving seat.

In her book, ‘Hypnobirthing: A Celebration of Life’, Mongan says: “You will not be in a trance or asleep. What you will experience is similar to the daydreaming, or focusing, that occurs when you are engrossed in a book or a movie or staring into a fire.” Hypnobirthing courses teach a range of relaxation techniques from breathing and “visualisation”, to partner massage.

Visualisations include anything from imagining a safe place and wading into a cold lake, to floating through a rainbow and turning dark clouds to gold.  And fans of 90s sitcom Friends, might already be familiar with the visualisation of ‘opening like a flower’, quite rightly delivered to the antenatal class Ross attends with his pregnant ex-wife. 

Despite its initial lukewarm reception, hypnobirthing has slowly but surely gained popularity, with some UK hospitals now offering courses.

Teri Gavin-Jones, midwife and hypnobirthing practitioner says: “Hypnobirthing is where water-birthing was 20 years ago. Back then it was considered a bit weird and there was a lot of scepticism from the medical community. But now every trust in the country does water births.” 

“Give it 10 years and hypnobirthing will be standard antenatal practice. It’ll be mainstream.”

The fundamental principle behind the practice reinforces the female body’s natural ability to give birth.

Nicola Snoad, hypnobirthing practitioner says, “[birth] is what our bodies are for; it’s why we’re here. That might not sound very feminist, but actually it is.”

Labour pain is widely accepted as inevitable and according to some religious texts, the punishment for women’s original sin. But hypnobirthing practitioners are adamant fear is the culprit – stories of long, arduous labours, of tearing, stitching, fainting and partner’s hand crushing.

Former hypnobirthing client Karen Fisher, who went into labour eight weeks early, says: “It wasn’t the relaxed birth I had envisaged but the hypnobirthing techniques kept me calmer. I never felt any requirement to take pain relief although it was offered on numerous occasions.”

After her pain-free birth, Nicky Logan (a hypnobirthing client turned practitioner) thought she was just “one of the lucky ones.” She recalls using hypnotherapy to deal with her first post-birth toilet visit (the pain of which she’d been forewarned).

“The next thing I knew, the midwife had flung open the door in a panic saying she had been knocking and shouting but I hadn’t replied. That’s when I knew it had worked.”

The more draconian attitudes of traditional obstetricians are giving way to medically and holistically trained professionals who are embracing these newer methods.  As recently as 2013, Friedman’s Curve, a graph revered as the go-to guide for labour regulation, was declared outdated. Despite its ‘average’ calculations, half of the women deviating from Dr. Friedman’s streamline trajectory were subjected to an often fatal series of interventions.

Midwife and editor of MIDRS (Midwives Information Digest and Resource Service), Cathy Ashwin, says midwifery is constantly evolving: “During my career I have seen changes move from the more natural approach, through to highly medicalised and now a shift back to encouraging less medicalisation unless indicated.”

Among the changes she has witnessed Ashwin counts “Stopping routine enemas and shaves on admission in labour, allowing fathers greater participation in the birth process, stopping routine episiotomies (an incision along the perineum), epidurals and water-births” as being among the most significant.

In addition to teaching them to harness their fears, hypnobirthing aims to educate women on the physiology of the female body during and post-partum, a service parents don’t often receive with conventional care.

Logan has experienced both a conventional childbirth followed by a hypnobirth and says: “I am continually amazed at our bodies’ natural abilities. The feedback mechanism with breastfeeding to give the right antibodies to baby, the fetal ejection reflex, and I love babies’ amazing breast crawl, none of which I knew about before hypnobirthing.”

Snoad explains: Classes don’t teach couples to decline medical advice but to find out what’s best for them so they feel equipped to make an informed decision.”

One of the subjects in which Snoad’s clients are well versed is oxytocin. The hormone performs a crucial role right from the parents’ courting days, to expelling baby and securing that vital post-natal bond.

A common method of intervention is to administer artificial oxytocin, known as pitocin, whichblocks pain-managing hormones. Its unnatural administration can interfere with the postnatal properties of oxytocin and prevent the natural “euphoric” boost that comes near the end of labour.

Despite its powerful and seemingly negative effects, there is an argument for its function in assisted childbirth.

Ashwin says: “I believe this should be used when there has been intervention during labour and in women with suboptimum health i.e. anaemia, poor nutrition, women from poorer countries, but not necessarily in intervention-free births.”

Although medical intervention has relaxed significantly, modern problems such as staff shortages and weighty demands on the healthcare system persist.

The National Childbirth Trust (NCT) and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) have reported red flag incidents due to delays, namely, the aftercare of surgical deliveries which, if left unattended, can lead to infection. They have further suggested a severe problem with staffing and an increasing strain on services and found that hospitals sometimes failed to provide beds for women in labour, with some women reporting feeling like ‘cattle’.

Gina Potts, hypnobirthing practitioner and founder of ZenBirth, compares the service she received during her hospital birth with her more “personal” and “more hands off” home birth experience:

“I don’t remember the hospital midwives at all from my first. It felt more impersonal. They were professional but it felt like I was just one of many women they were rushing around to look after.”    

Snoad recalls not feeling the tear she endured during her second home birth, and says it was taken care of respectfully while she cuddled her newborn: “If I was in hospital, I’d be wheeled straight off to an operating theatre without my baby.”

While the positives of home birth seem stacked against the conventional alternative, there are those lobbyists who preach the risk of home birth and who, in some cases, have even branded it as child abuse.

Snoad says: “It’s a real feminist issue that there’s an innate distrust of women to know what’s best.”  

Organisations, such as Birthright, campaign to reinforce the autonomy to which parents are lawfully entitled. However, many professionals can’t seem to grasp this, and their discomfort with parents’ choice for a natural birth translates to a safeguarding issue. Stories abound in which social services have threatened parents over their decision to have an unassisted birth, or a mother-to-be has been ‘bullied’ into taking drugs during labour. 

In a 2012 article, The Guardian, tells Melissa Bowram-Hopper’s story in which a few weeks after the birth, a social worker and two police officers appeared at her door demanding to see her child whom she had chosen to birth unassisted. They threatened to take away the child unless the mother could prove he/she was alive and well. Eventually she was forced to relent but not without feeling completely disempowered.

She said: “All I wanted was full control over my life and my birth.”

Despite hypnobirthing achieving a more mainstream following, including high-profile names such as actress Jessica Alba and The Duchess of York, NHS budgets, strained as they are, may not be able to support the movement in normalising natural births much longer. And couples – who, as Snoad stresses, can be so vulnerable in labour – “will fall prey to a crumbling system unless they really stamp their feet.”

Others remain positive about the future of hypnobirthing. Ashwin believes it is gaining in popularity and part of a growing spectrum of choices that are presented to parents-to-be.

Potts has noticed its momentum as well. She says: “More and more midwives and obstetricians have been referring pregnant women to my hypnobirthing classes over the last six years.”

Despite the shifting tides of maternal care within a struggling health system, it seems clear that the innate sense of humannesshypnobirthing celebrates has reclaimed itsplace amid the turbulent timeline of child birthing debate.

While a natural birth may not work for every parent, women like Snoad and Ashwin demonstrate women’s right to choose, and to demand respect for birthing mothers, and subsequently, the very nature by which we all exist.

And you might say that’s a pretty good basis for evolution.