When it comes to giving birth and creating a birthing plan, exploring and understanding pain relief options is often near the top of the list. There are a host of solutions, from epidurals and Pethidine, TENS machines, Entonox (gas and air), through to natural options such as water births and hypnobirthing. Here, we explore the topic of hypnobirthing in a little more detail.
What is hypnobirthing?
Hypnobirthing is based on the concept of equipping women with the belief that childbirth does not have to be painful. While people’s experience of labour and pain during childbirth varies hugely, it is widely accepted that fear and anxiety can worsen it. Hypnobirthing focuses on reframing the idea of labour from a painful and difficult experience, to a positive one, helping to relieve anxiety and ease the process.
It generally involves a series of techniques using hypnosis, positive affirmations, visualisations, meditation, and relaxation techniques to ease the pain of childbirth naturally.
Where did the concept of hypnobirthing come from?
For many years, the expectation was that women would use anaesthesia and give birth lying on their backs with their feet in stirrups. When Marie Mongan was pregnant with her third child in the 1950s, she refused anaesthesia. During her first pregnancy, Marie studied the work of Grantly Dick-Read, a British obstetrician who promoted the idea of reducing pain using relaxation and was one of the first to use the phrase “natural childbirth”.
While Marie had requested a more natural birth with her first two children, nurses refused. By the time she had her third child, Marie was insistent.
Having experienced the natural birth she longed for, Marie went on to become a certified hypnotherapist. When her daughter Maura became pregnant, she started holding classes in hypnobirthing. Although hypnosis had been used for pain relief for more than a century, it was Marie’s work that popularised hypnobirthing and made it more of a mainstream option.
Hypnobirthing techniques – summary and advantages:
Hypnobirthing techniques are a set of relaxation and self-hypnosis methods aimed at reducing anxiety, fear, and pain during childbirth. These include:
As with many childbirth classes, Hypnobirthing classes provide expectant parents with information about the physiological process of childbirth, the body's natural ability to give birth, and the importance of relaxation.
Hypnobirthing promotes deep relaxation through various techniques such as breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, and meditation. These techniques help to retain a feeling of control and relaxation during labour.
The use of positive affirmations and visualisations play a significant role in hypnobirthing. This helps to replace fear and tension with confidence and positive expectations about the labour experience.
Hypnobirthing teaches self-hypnosis techniques, which involve entering a focused state to reduce pain sensations and increase relaxation. This state of mind can help to manage discomfort during contractions.
Creating a calm and soothing birthing environment is a key aspect of hypnobirthing. This might involve dim lighting, soft music, comforting scents, and minimising disruptions to enhance relaxation.
Controlled breathing techniques are taught to help manage pain and reduce tension. These techniques focus on slow, deep breaths that promote relaxation and oxygenation.
Hypnobirthing encourages the mother to reframe the perception of pain as powerful sensations rather than something to be feared. This shift in perspective can help to manage discomfort and anxiety during labour. Hypnobirthing teaches that maintaining a positive mindset can work with the body rather than against it.
Does hypnobirthing really work? What’s the evidence?
Only a small number of studies have looked at hypnobirthing - and the evidence is inconclusive.
A study conducted in 2022 found that the group practising hypnobirthing had lower rates of birth intervention (such as forceps), shorter delivery periods, and higher rates of vaginal delivery than the control group. According to an article in The Guardian, “Wolverhampton NHS Trust [reported] that 80% of hypnobirthing mothers have normal births with no analgesic treatments, compared with 60% of the general population who have a normal birth. A small-scale 2006 study in Australia found that women who were taught antenatal self-hypnosis techniques reported fewer epidurals (36%) than the control group (53%) and lower use of other forms of pain relief.
However, the biggest study into the subject, a randomised trial of 680 pregnant women in the UK known as the SHIP trial, reported that self-hypnosis made no difference to either the method of birth – normal, instrumental or caesarean – or to the use of analgesic treatment between the group who were taught self-hypnosis techniques and the control group, though the hypnosis group did report a reduction in anxiety about birth.
With all of that said, reducing stress in any situation is a positive thing! In labour, stress reduction can help women to experience birth differently. The hormone Oxytocin is known to fuel labour, causing contractions to get longer, stronger and closer together and getting your body ready for birth. Stress hormones, including adrenaline, are known to work in opposition to the release of oxytocin, slowing things down. Read more on the role of hormones in labour from the National Childbirth Trust. With that in mind, anything that helps expectant parents to feel calmer - whether that’s music, massage or hypnobirthing - can only be a good thing!
Will hypnobirthing put me in a trance?
While people may associate hypnosis with being put into a “trance” or hypnotic state, it is important to note that hypnobirthing does neither of those things. What hypnobirthing aims to do is help a woman to relax and focus, enhancing her birthing experience.
Marie Mongan, who was responsible for popularising hypnobirthing, told The Washington Times in 2000. “It is similar to the daydreaming or focusing that occurs when you are engrossed in a book or staring at the fire — you lose track of what is going on around you. You can be fully relaxed yet fully in control.”
Are there any disadvantages to hypnobirthing?
While the evidence is inconclusive in terms of advantages and disadvantages, there are a few things that it may help to be aware of:
As with all birthing plans and pain-relief choices, it is important to remember that what you put in your birthing plan and what happens in labour may differ. If there are complications, hypnobirthing can help you deal with them calmly, but learning these techniques doesn’t preclude you from requesting alternative pain relief if things don't go to plan.
Hypnobirthing techniques are more effective if they are practised regularly. Don’t expect to master the art as you go into labour! You will need to take time to practise the breathing, visualisation and self-hypnosis techniques for it to work.
While some areas are offering hypnobirthing on the NHS, many of the current hypnobirthing courses are offered by private practitioners or charities, so will need some financial investment.
There are some concerns that these techniques may mask the progression of labour because the women seem so calm and relaxed.
When should I start learning hypnobirthing techniques?
As with many antenatal classes, the consensus is that starting in your second trimester is about right. When deciding on the timing, consider your personal preferences, availability of hypnobirthing classes or resources in your area, and how quickly you can access materials for self-study.
It is important to remember that learning and practising techniques take time. Starting in the second trimester gives you several months to find and attend classes and become proficient in relaxation, visualisation, and self-hypnosis methods before your due date. It also gives you time to integrate some of the techniques into your day-to-day life, and figure out which of the techniques works best for you.
Is hypnobirthing available on the NHS?
The availability of NHS classes varies from trust to trust. Some will offer hypnobirthing as part of their free antenatal class offer for prospective parents, while others will direct you to local (paid) providers. Search on the NHS antenatal class finder using your postcode to find out what is available in your area. You also can find prenatal classes near you using Pebble.