‘Hypnobirthing got me through two days in labour’: Irish women using the technique to make labour less painful
The women who believe the dubiously-titled technique makes labour easier and less painful
There are many questions that a mum can expect to be asked after she announces that the pitter-patter of tiny feet is imminent. Will she find out the gender? What names does she have in mind? And will she have an epidural?
Where once it was assumed that a pregnant woman would opt for some form of pain management during labour, these days many mums-to-be are exploring a more natural approach. One such method, hypnobirthing, is steadily on the rise. The technique has gained ground partly through word-of-mouth, and partly through celebrity advocates like Fearne Cotton (Kate Middleton, Kate Moss and Angelina Jolie are also said to be fans).
"Hypnobirthing focuses on how to keep your mind calm in labour, which in turn helps your body to respond in a more effective way," explains birth coach Claire Brett of beautifulbirth.ie. "It's so important to remain calm in labour, because it has a whole knock-on effect on the hormones that women release."
Claire teaches the technique during antenatal classes. "They are very much focused on the mind-body connection. You leave the course with a bag of tools to help you get into a calm place, and stay in it when you're thrown curve balls."
The typical client attending her courses varies. "It could be first-time parents, people who have had traumatic previous birth experiences, people who feel a little disempowered... the fear of the unknown can be a huge thing."
Claire explains that a sense of fear and panic in the subconscious can "cause the birthing muscles to tighten and tense up". "Whether it's real or not - your subconscious mind holds the fear.
"People have misconceptions about hypnobirthing," she adds. "One of the biggest being that it is only for people who have a natural birth with no pain relief." She says couples who have attended her classes have experienced "inductions, c-sections, epidural and pethidine" and report that hypnobirthing helped them, no matter what kind of birth they had.
She cites a recent NHS study which found that hypnobirthing has led to "less inductions, less c-sections and less need for epidural" and says she includes details of this study in her classes now to deal with what she terms "normal cynicism".
"Typically, the dads will be a bit sceptical," she adds, "but by the end of the course they flip their thinking when they realise that they have a very practical part to play."
Claire had an opportunity to test her teachings when her own birth experience proved less straightforward than she hoped. "I ended up having a planned c-section because my baby was breech," she explains.
"At the time it was terrible to think that I wouldn't be able to experience a natural birth and experience everything that all my couples had spoken about, but what it taught me was that you can't control everything and all you can do is prepare yourself to have the right birth for you and your baby on the day."
Kathy Cleere is a Parent Education midwife in Dublin's Coombe hospital where she implemented hypnobirthing training. She says it's one of the Coombe's most popular courses, and is largely designed to "take away that massive fear about childbirth".
"Irish women want more choice," says Kathy. "They now think, 'This is my body, this is my baby and I want to empower myself to get through it in whatever way I can'.
"Hypnobirthing is just a tool," she adds. "It doesn't mean they're going to have a natural, normal birth. The key thing in early labour is understanding how your body works. I meet so many women who come to antenatal clinics and say that they don't want to know anything.
"We see people in labour who are so frightened that their body just can't work properly. If they could just hand themselves over and let their body do what it is meant to do - it takes the fear away."
As for the 'hypnotism' aspect? Kathy says she isn't hypnotising anybody. "It's just deep relaxation," she explains. "The couples have to put the work in. The first class is all about planting a positive seed. It's looking forward to the birth and not dreading the birth, and then they build on that, so each time they listen to the CD, it's like watering the seed of positivity."
Language is also very important in maintaining positivity: the words 'surge' and 'sensation' replace 'contraction' and 'pain'.
Paula Barry, research midwife at the Coombe, says the hospital is wholly embracing hypnobirthing, and the midwives are very supportive of anyone who chooses to practise it.
Elsewhere, Lisa Roddy, staff midwife in Sligo University hospital, has delivered the babies of women who practised the technique during her previous role in the NHS in Enniskillen.
Lisa says one of the major advantages of hypnobirthing is that women practising the techniques tend to stay at home longer and cope very well with the early stages of labour. This means that they are usually in established labour by the time they attend the hospital.
Through the use of hypnobirthing, Lisa has seen first-time mums appear like they are not in labour at all, and others look like they have had an epidural. "However, it does seem to depend on the person and how much they are invested in the techniques," she adds.
"Some women feel that it is useful in the early stages but then need additional pain relief as labour progresses. Some women don't feel it works for them but I think it is definitely worth a try, even just for keeping calm and focused, regardless of the type of delivery."
Alternative birthing plans
Some alternative, natural and holistic approaches to labour, with thanks to Melanie McArdle, Gentlebirth Instructor, birthtobaby.ie
Mindfulness: Can be used not just to prepare for birth but to prepare for parenting and life in general. Mindfulness changes your perception of pain.
Birth Support Psychology Using visualisation to picture a positive birth experience. A lot of the pain in birth is caused by fear and when you have fear you have adrenaline in the body. The idea is to trick your brain into thinking that you've given birth before and had a positive birth experience. The mind can't tell the difference.
Water: Being in the water increases oxytocin in the body which drives the uterus and increases pain tolerance. It makes labour more efficient and less painful at the same time.
Doula: A birth support partner whose services are usually engaged in the hope of achieving a natural birth experience.
Tens machine: Small portable battery-operated device which transmits small electrical pulses to the body. It's thought the electrical pulses prevent pain signals from reaching your brain and stimulate your body to release natural endorphins.
‘Hypnobirthing got me through two days in labour’
Sarah O'Toole, Paediatric First Aid Instructor, from Greystones, is a new mum to four-week-old baby Finn. She decided to give hypnobirthing a try after previous back surgery meant that an epidural was unlikely to work.
Even though her labour didn't wholly go according to plan, beginning with an induction and ending with an episiotomy, she found hypnobirthing an enormous help.
Friends and family, including her husband Andy, who is an advanced paramedic, were a little cynical at first, but came wholeheartedly on board when they realised it was something she really wanted to try.
"The whole idea with hypnobirthing is to prepare and have as many insights as possible, but obviously labour goes its own way. It's a lot of practice at home as it's very much getting used to the language."
Together, Sarah and Andy practised using 'scripts', which helped bring Sarah into a relaxed state. "The lengths of the scripts shorten, the closer you get to labour," she explains.
The couple used two specific words, one to bring Sarah into a relaxed state and the other to encourage her to resume alertness. Sarah said it didn't fully switch things off during labour but it did help to reduce the sensations.
During labour, Sarah declined continued use of gas and air as she found coping through her hypnobirthing techniques more helpful. "Andy talked me through a surge with pre-practised things that would bring me down into the relaxed state."
As Sarah's labour progressed, it became evident that medical intervention was needed to assist baby Finn's birth and, at that stage, Sarah had to move away from some of her birth plan as she needed to help a quick delivery by pushing, which is in contrast to the hypnobirthing teaching of breathing the baby down. "At the end of the day, your birth plan is to have your baby born safely," she says. "Hypnobirthing got me through two days in labour and right up until 20 minutes before Finn was born.
"I think it's fantastic and would use it again if I was to have future children."