If you’re pregnant, or planning on becoming pregnant in the near future, chances are that you’ve started to research, or at least think about, what it will be like to give birth. It’s only natural to be curious about the birth experience given how much hype there is around labor, from the pain to the life changing nature of the event itself.
There are a number of childbirth classes you can take to prepare yourself as best as possible, with Lamaze and the Bradley Method being the most popular. However, hypnobirthing classes are another option. Hypnobirthing aims to approach labor in a way that focuses on breathing techniques (much like Lamaze), but with the added benefit of also achieving an almost transcendent state during the birthing process.
As you do your labor research, here’s what you should know about hypnobirthing, including its purported benefits and its inherent limitations.
What is hypnobirthing?
First, let’s talk about hypnobirthing more in depth so you can get a clearer picture of this particular birthing technique.
As you might imagine, hypnobirthing involves learning to achieve self-hypnosis so that you can weather the experience of labor and vaginal birth from a deeply relaxed state. There are a number of techniques used in hypnobirthing, including repeating affirmations and deep breathing, that are supposed to help you transcend the fight-or-flight body response that can sometimes accompany labor in order for you to have a more relaxed, stress-free experience.
The term “hypnobirthing” was coined in the 1989 book HypnoBirthing: A Celebration of Life by Marie Mongan, a hypnotherapist. Today, you can take an official hypnobirthing class, which consists of 12 hours of instruction on the technique by a certified hypnobirthing instructor.
Each of the five classes you’d take are two and half hours long and go over the various techniques you can use during labor as a form of pain relief and mental relaxation. These classes allow you to practice for the big event and ask questions along the way.
What are some hypnobirthing techniques?
If you happen to take the plunge into childbirth education and connect with a certified hypnobirthing educator, you’ll find that there are four main techniques used in hypnobirthing to help make labor feel less intense, reduce anxiety and help you achieve deep relaxation.
When used together, these techniques can help birthing women achieve a hypnotic state that allows for a smoother, shorter labor process. Here’s a quick overview of each of the techniques used in hypnobirthing:
Hypnobirthing teaches deep breathing to help control stress hormones and allow your body to find that hypnotic state. Many women find that deep breathing in general can help them stay calm and more relaxed during the birthing process, which is why it is taught in nearly every birthing class, not just hypnobirthing.
Being conscious of your breath gives you something to focus on so that you can disassociate from the labor and delivery pain of natural childbirth.
Visualization can be a powerful tool to help your brain achieve a more relaxed state. A visualization exercise can help distract you from the pain of labor and keep you focused on your breath.
This hypnobirthing technique helps with pain management by giving your brain something else to do besides focus on the painful bodily sensations you’ll experience in childbirth.
Repeating positive affirmations is another distraction technique of hypnobirthing that not only gives your brain something to focus on but also inspires you to keep your thoughts calm and optimistic.
Especially when you are near the end of labor before pushing (known as “the turn”), your thoughts can turn doubtful and negative, leading you to wonder if you really can get through labor. Having positive affirmations to focus on can keep your brain in a more constructive mindset.
Mindful word choice
Hypnobirthing offers replacing some of the terms of labor with more helpful words, making the experience more positive and forward-looking. (Some of the words used in labor, and in medicine in general, can sound a touch pessimistic.) For instance, instead of “contraction” you are encouraged to say “surge” or “wave.” “Stalled labor” is replaced with the more positive phrase “resting labor.” And the word “patients” is swapped out for “parents.”
What are the benefits of hypnobirthing?
There are many upsides to trying hypnobirthing during labor, some of which are backed up by scientific study. These five benefits shed light on why hypnobirthing has gained popularity over the last few decades and has become more mainstream:
Benefit #1: Managing pain naturally
According to research, women using hypnobirthing techniques experience less intense labor pain, and need fewer medical interventions for easing pain, than women who do not. Being able to put yourself into a hypnotic state can help you transcend the pain of labor, at least in part, allowing you to breathe through the discomfort without needing pain medication.
Benefit #2: Potentially shortening labor
Women who practice hypnobirthing tend to have shorter labors overall than women who do not. This is because hypnobirthing has been shown to make the first stage of labor, when contractions become more intense and closer together, go more quickly.
Benefit #3: Lessening the need for medical interventions
While 32 percent of birthing women in general have cesarean deliveries, only 17 percent of hypnobirthing women needed cesarean, according to a recent study. Physically, being able to breathe through contracts can help keep both the birthing woman’s and baby’s heart rate from spiking, allowing mother and child to work together to complete the birthing process.
Benefit #4: Feeling more in control of the labor process
Because they had breathing exercises and affirmations to focus on, some women report that they felt more in control of their bodies when they practiced hypnobirthing. Being able to retain body autonomy during the unpredictable birthing process can ease stress and allow for a less mentally taxing experience.
Benefit #5: Helping women who have had traumatic births in the past
For women who have had traumatic births due to unforeseen interventions or emergency situations, giving birth again can be even more difficult. Hypnobirthing can help make the experience more positive and less stressful. Having a plan in place that focuses on a woman’s mental state can help those who have experienced trauma feel more comfortable about being in labor again.
What are the limitations of hypnobirthing?
The big question with hypnobirthing is this: Does it actually work? While data does show that it can help ease pain and shorten labor, it’s not a sure thing. If hypnobirthing really allowed every woman to have calm, pain-free labor then everyone would be doing it—and epidurals would be relegated to an ancient medical practice.
Hypnobirthing can certainly improve women’s birth experiences but it’s not without its limitations. Here are the three main constraints to hypnobirthing that you should keep in mind.
Hypnobirthing puts “natural” birth on a pedestal
Hypnobirthing is hyper focused on so-called natural childbirth, which means vaginal, non-medicated childbirth with no medical interventions. The practice can position “natural” birth as superior to cesarean births or ones that happen vaginally with the help of an epidural. As a culture, we do pregnant and birthing women a disservice when certain types of births are considered more natural or better than others.
Every birth, no matter the circumstances, is equal.
Hypnobirthing can minimize the reality of pain
The core concept of hypnobirthing is the idea that intense pain doesn’t need to be part of labor. However, as anyone who has ever been in unmedicated labor will tell you, pain is simply part of giving birth. While, sure, there’s the possibility that some women throughout history may have experienced a completely painless birth, due to hypnobirthing or other techniques, the majority of women will experience pain. That is the reality.
Hypnobirthing can help relax you and keep you from entering flight-or-flight territory, making the birth process less stressful overall, but it cannot fully eradicate pain. To promise otherwise is simply misleading.
Hypnobirthing doesn’t always prepare you for the possibility of medical interventions
Hypnobirthing typically doesn’t account for labor not going as planned. The practice sets women up for expecting to have a natural, non-medicated birth and doesn’t always consider the very real possibilities of needing a medical intervention.
For some women, the pain is simply too unbearable, even after repeating a positive affirmation one thousand times. For others, an issue with the baby might mean needing to manually break their water. When the focus is just on having a natural birth with no interventions, this can set women up for feeling like they failed if they end up needing an emergency c-section or end up getting that epidural.
The bottom line about hypnobirthing
No matter if you choose hypnobirthing or another technique for labor, it’s important to keep your birthing experience in perspective and know that there’s only so much that you can control about the birth process. Creating a concrete, detailed birth plan likely won’t serve you. Like your parenting journey to come, you often just have to go with the flow and let go of a need to control the outcome.
While it’s important to prepare for the birth of your child, in the end, labor is just one day of your life. (Maybe two if you have a particularly long one.) Have some coping tools to help you through the experience and make a loose plan of what you think you’ll need but know that you can never fully prepare yourself for labor.
Whatever happens on that life changing day, know that you are strong enough to handle it. And once it’s over, you’ll begin the next chapter of your life as a new parent.