Sophie Fletcher is the author of ‘Mindful Hypnobirthing’ a clinical hypnotherapist and doula. She lectures at Universities across the UK on hypnosis and mindfulness for birth. You can ask her a question on twitter @mindfulmamma or join the facebook community at facebook.com/mindfulmamma or go to www.sophiefletcher.co.uk.
Congratulations! You’re pregnant. You may have already started planning for when your baby is born. You may have booked an antenatal class, either NCT, NHS or private. You may be focused on the physical nature of birth. But, have you stopped to consider how your state of mind can affect your baby and your birth?
Mindful hypnobirthing is a combination of hypnosis and mindfulness techniques. It helps your body respond well during labour by enabling you to feel calm, confident and positive about the birth of your baby. Mindful hypnobirthing differs from basic relaxation techniques as it helps change your responses to birth at an unconscious level, which is, ultimately, much more powerful. Apart from basic relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises to get you into a state of light hypnosis, you’ll learn how to change your mindset about birth using unique techniques, a series of hypnosis audio tracks you can listen to on a daily basis which help keep you de-stressed, and it gives you hypnosis and mindfulness exercises to help manage any pain.
There is increasing evidence to show that how you think about birth can change your experience and the outcome. Many more studies are exploring the link between the psychology and physiology of birth; they show that when a woman is preparing using specific techniques that labour may be shorter, less painful, is less likely to have intervention, and may reduce the risk of post natal depression.
The philosophy behind hypnobirthing is that women today are conditioned to believe that birth is dangerous. From the moment we are born, up to the present, we are surrounded by messages that tell us birth is painful; we can’t cope, that it’s dangerous, and something to be feared. This isn’t the case for all women, but in todays culture the majority of women would be hard pressed to go through life being surrounded with overwhelmingly positive messages of birth.
A survey a few years ago, that thousands of women participated in, showed that 4 in 5 women have some anxieties of birth, other studies show that 10-20% of women suffer from extreme anxiety of birth.
Anxiety of birth is something that I work with all the time. It’s the key reason that people come on a hypnobirthing class. Many women feel out of control, and want to learn techniques to manage the pain. What many of them are surprised to learn is that by changing your belief around birth and actively taking steps to change the messages you receive you are one step closer to having a much more fulfilling experience. This may simply be things like turning off ‘One Born Every Minute and tuning into ‘Call the Midwife’.
Is hypnobirthing it just the ‘latest thing?
This time last summer the word hypnobirthing was splashed across magazines, when it was rumoured that the Duchess of Cambridge was using it to prepare for her birth. Kate isn’t the only person in the spotlight to have used hypnosis or mindfulness for birth, Jessica Alba, Cindy Crawford, Demi More, Ricki Lake, Jade Jagger, Gisele Bunchen are just a few some of those who have openly spoken about their birth experiences using hypnosis.
What they and thousands of other women have in common is the wish to enjoy the experience of birth, to have their choices heard, to feel in control, and to create a gentle environment for their baby to be born into.
So why do they choose hypnosis? It’s true that it’s becoming more mainstream, but it’s definitely not a celebrity fad.
The first written account of hypnosis for birth was in 1858 and it’s a seriously effective way to prepare for your baby’s birth. It can help you stay focused, reduce pain. One study showed that it can reduce labour by up to 3 hours. Many more women say that they have a positive experience using hypnosis.
The first step in hypnobirthing is to learn why fear can change your physical experience of birth, how your birth hormones respond to fear and what you can do about it.
Our beautiful birth hormones
Do you know what the birth hormone oxytocin does? It’s an amazing hormone and is perfectly designed to create the optimum physical environment for birth. It helps your muscles relax, makes you feel good and releases your body’s own natural painkillers called endorphins. These can be as strong as many pharmacological painkillers.
Oxytocin is also called the love hormone, it’s the same hormone we release when we fall in love, when we are in social situations where we feel comfortable, and when we have sex. It’s no coincidence that many birth units are being refurbished so that they feel more like a home from home. When a woman feels private and more comfortable it helps the flow of oxytocin, which helps contractions to happen.
There is another hormone that rears its head during birth, and this is a group of hormones called catecholamines. These are stress hormones and include adrenaline, which you’ll be more familiar with.
You release adrenaline when you are frightened and anxious, it’s an instinctive primal response that activates our threat system and sets off a chain of events called fight or flight. It also stops or slows the flow of oxytocin. This goes back our mammalian roots.
Sometimes we forget that we are mammals, and that we need the same environment to birth as other mammals. As children we are told not to go near cats and dogs when they are birthing as it can disturb them and create problems. Zookeepers and animal breeders know exactly what I’m talking about, they are extremely sensitive to making sure that an animal’s threat system isn’t activated during labour.
There is very little difference between us and other mammals when it comes to birthing. Imagine you are giving birth somewhere exposed to predators; if you were to sense one, adrenaline would rise and stop labour, so you could get somewhere safe.
Today threats have changed but are still present and are all around us, specifically those of pain, intervention and loss of control. They not only come from our external environment, but our internal thought processes can also cause a flight or flight response. If at any moment during labour a woman feels threatened, anxious or vulnerable it could stop contractions.
Adrenaline can also make birth more painful. When oxytocin drops you also lose the benefit of your body’s natural painkillers and like any muscle in your body, when it’s tense, activity hurts more.
Turning the ‘Ow into ‘Wow’.
The good news is that you can change this response, so you can feel more in control, more trusting of your ability to birth and less dependent on intervention. In a hypnobirthing class you can learn how to change belief and expectation at every level, so that your response to birth is excited expectation rather than fearful apprehension. When you feel like this, oxytocin flows helping birth progress.
Many women who use hypnobirthing recognise birth as powerful, or even painful, but they feel able to manage. They feel in control using the techniques they have learned.
Someone women feel pain disappear completely. One woman I was a doula for, after a long 30 minute hypnosis relaxation, said it was as good as the epidural she had for her first birth.
My colleague, Mia Scotland, once said that hypnobirthing turns the ‘Ow into Wow’, and I think that this the perfect way to describe the difference it can make!
So what is hypnosis like?
Hypnosis gets bad press, it’s often seen in films or media as trickery or a form of psychological manipulation, but in truth it’s completely the opposite. You are always in control of what you choose to do, and there isn’t a simpler way to learn how to get the best out of any situation, including giving birth to your baby.
Hypnosis is different from relaxation, it does feel very relaxing, but specific language patterns and symbolism differentiate it from relaxation and are designed to create change very quickly. I see relaxation as a very welcome side-effect of hypnosis!
When you go into hypnosis and quieten down the chatty part of your mind, your conscious mind, you go into a tranquil stage of ‘almost sleep’. It’s deeply comforting, physically and emotionally. You’ll find that you will sleep well and, as you get to grips with the techniques, that you are able to soothe yourself very quickly and easily in all sorts of situations. Even birth partners have been known to use them to help sleep on commuter trains, or feel better before giving a presentation!
Hypnosis is also an incredible pain management tool, and is used in both surgery and dentistry when someone chooses not to use anesthetic. You can read Dr John Butler’s experience of using hypnosis in the Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/dec/30/stayed-awake-during-operation-experience
Get your partner involved
You may not have considered the benefits for the birth partner; it’s usually a surprise. I’ve lost count of the number of times a mother has got in touch to thank me for helping her partner to understand their role better. Rather than feeling like a spare part, a partner can know precisely what is happening, why it’s happening and what to do (or not) about it.
A partner’s fear can be contagious so teaching them why this is, and that they can use the techniques too can make a real difference to how a mother feels during the birth.
Not just for a home waterbirth.
You might assume that hypnobirthing is only for women that are intending on having a birth at home and don’t want pain relief, but the truth is that you can benefit from hypnosis, whichever path your birth takes. I’ve heard many stories of positive experiences at home and in hospital.
Most of the women I’ve attended births with have been higher risk; the preparation I do with them helps them to keep as close as possible to their birth preferences and to have a positive experience. Some women are afraid of needles, some can’t take anaesthetic for medical reasons, others have underlying health problems. Hypnosis has helped all of these women to find a way of confidently managing, without dependency, on drugs or medical intervention.
Learn more about it
I wish I’d known about hypnosis for my first-born. It wasn’t until I saw it mentioned on Richard and Judy in 2004, when pregnant with my second son, that I threw caution to the wind and tried something I would have just dismissed outright before. It was the best thing I ever did and changed how I made choices not just at my birth, but at work and at home.
You can start your hypnobirthing journey by reading a book, if you like what it says you can choose to do a class as well. Why not give it a go? Like me all those years ago, it could change a lot more than your birth.
Mindful Hypnobirthing by Sophie Fletcher (Vermilion, £12.99) is out now