At four months pregnant, I had an acute fear of giving birth. I think it was all the horror stories: my grandmother gave birth five times, but never spoke about it. My mother told me about her epidural, gas, and 25 hours of excruciating labour. Other relatives recalled feeling exposed and not in control of their own bodies, or being given cesareans they didn’t feel were necessary.
Their stories were full of vivid detail and emotion, and it was clear that the impact of their experiences lasted far longer than the immediate postpartum recovery period – decades, in fact. I was inspired to do all I could to make my birth experience a positive one. I started research.
My aunt sent me a copy of Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin, one of the founders and the current president of the Midwives’ Alliance of North America. As a powerful advocate for a woman’s right to give birth without excessive and unnecessary medical intervention, Gaskin’s classic book on home birth introduced a whole generation of women to the concept of natural childbirth at a time (1976) when birth was increasingly seen as a medical procedure rather than a normal bodily function.
With fascination I read the amazing birthing tales of Old Order Amish women, who were attended by the ‘Farm’ midwives. Each story was remarkable for its positivity. The women were not afraid of giving birth; rather, they looked upon the experience as a transcendental privilege of being a woman. They were not inducted, and never used drugs to help them through it; it appeared that their labours were such that drugs weren’t even required.
It seemed a little too good to be true. The book was full of photos of long-plaited women in flowing floral dresses, and shaggy-bearded men beside caravans. I was skeptical of the out-there, ‘hippy’ philosophies, such as the advice that the labouring woman’s husband should give her his full attention by ‘smooching with her or by rubbing her breasts, her back, or legs’.
I knew that birth is unpredictable, but it didn’t change the fact that these Amish women (at least the ones featured in the book) were successfully giving birth naturally – and loving the experience. I had found something to aspire to with my own impending childbirth, but I felt I needed more guidance to achieve a natural, fear- and drug-free birth.
A friend mentioned HypnoBirthing to me, which I had never heard of. She said that if it hadn’t been for the use of HypnoBirthing during her second delivery, she would never have allowed herself to fall pregnant with her subsequent two children – a pretty positive endorsement.
As I discovered, HypnoBirthing functions on the premise that most labour-related pain occurs as a result of fear and tension, which can be diminished or completely eliminated with hypnotherapy. I had heard about the successes of hypnotherapy for a range of applications; in fact, my grandfather, a long-time smoker, used hypnotherapy to quit ‘cold turkey’, and never looked back.
I met with a couple of HypnoBirthing professionals and, much to my relief, they told me I wouldn’t be placed into an unconscious trance, suggestible to silly instructions. Rather, HypnoBirthing teaches a woman techniques she can use to bring herself into a state of deep relaxation, with the goal of eliminating fear, along with the accompanying tension and pain.
I was fascinated to learn that the origins of HypnoBirthing go back to 1913 in London. The story goes something like this: a young doctor named Dr. Grantly Dick-Read cycled out to attend a birth in a city slum, where he found a poor young woman in labour. As was the practice at the time, he prepared a dose of chloroform with which to anesthetise the woman. She refused the chloroform and gave birth to her baby with little fuss. The doctor was stunned, and asked why she had refused the anesthetic. The woman looked confused, and replied, ‘But it’s not supposed to hurt, right doctor?’
After attending two similar births, Dr Dick-Read theorised that he had never seen such simple births before because the hospital in which he worked treated only wealthy women, who had been told that birth was a painful and traumatic experience. He termed this phenomenon the ‘fear-tension-pain syndrome’ of childbirth. The poorer women did not have this expectation of pain, but, rather, they expected birth to be a smooth and natural process, and so remained relaxed and fear-free during labour.
I never forget to count my lucky stars that I’ve been born in an era of excellent medical knowledge and technology, but, whenever possible, I try to give my body a chance to take care of minor issues without medical intervention. Could I really entrust childbirth to my body? Was it, as Dr Dick-Read supposed, just an everyday function?
Today, birth is certainly portrayed as a frightening, painful and dangerous experience in which our bodies should not be trusted. It makes me upset to hear young women say things like, ‘If I ever get pregnant, I’m opting for cesarean!’
But, it’s no wonder, when television programs like One Born Every Minute and Call the Midwife mostly depict births with heavy medical intervention, where the women are distressed and lose faith in their own ability to birth their babies.
I stopped watching birth programs and made up my mind: I would undertake a four-week ‘birth hypnosis’ course with a professional. The program was not strictly HypnoBirthing, but drew on the same philosophy of self-relaxation techniques.
The course came with CDs that I was to listen to daily, and involved four 90-minute sessions with my partner and the birth hypnosis professional, Alison. We learned and practiced breathing methods to deepen relaxation, worked on different distraction and massage techniques for use during each stage of labour, and learnt about the mechanics of childbirth and the function of the uterus. I found the whole course to be fascinating, and it helped my partner and I to experience the amazing journey of pregnancy together.
Alison explained how fear induces the ‘fight or flight’ response, which can slow or stop labour by filtering blood and oxygen away from the uterus so that it can be used by the muscles that would flee a dangerous situation. As a result, the uterus is unable to perform its functions efficiently or without pain.
Alison helped me to realise that the frightening and painful labour experienced by my mother was having an impact on my own expectation of what giving birth would be like. For myself, and probably many other women nearing the birth of their first children, beliefs were passed down from the previous generation to my own. Is it any wonder that women approach the experience of labour and birth with fear, when their own mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers, and so on, had negative experiences in a system that did not empower women in labour, or allow them to make their own decisions about what happens to their bodies?
Thankfully, today the role and philosophy of hospitals, doctors and midwives caring for women in labour has evolved since those women themselves were born. There is a greater focus on educating women about the process of birth, their pain relief options, and their rights.
My labour was short, uncomplicated and drug- and fear-free. It certainly wasn’t pain-free, as the woman in that 1913 London slum suggested, but the pain was manageable, and I knew I could get through it. Having spoken with women who struggled with complications during pregnancy and birth, I feel so lucky to have had a straightforward pregnancy that allowed me to feel relaxed and positive.
And luck did play a part, I am sure. For some women, a natural birth is not possible, even with the best-laid plans, and the guidance of programs like HypnoBirthing.
A friend of mine followed a similar birth preparation to my own, read the same books, and had an almost identical birth plan; yet her birth experience was less positive. Complications like gestational diabetes and induction meant intervention during birth was her only option for her safety and wellbeing, and that of her baby. But, she was well-informed and able to make her own decisions throughout. Several months later, they’re both happy and healthy.
Alison spoke to me about some of her other clients who had required emergency cesareans, but used their birth hypnosis skills to remain calm while making important decisions about the procedure. This is such a positive aspect of programs like Alison’s; they assist women to take control of their birth experiences, and make clear and calm decisions about their bodies, without the influence of fear.
I experienced most of my labour at home, only arriving at the hospital 20 minutes before the birth of my daughter. I wasn’t in a hypnotic trance, but, when I felt those little bubbles of panic start to form, I drew upon the relaxation techniques I had learnt, and managed to refocus. For me, hypnosis was a great component of my birth experience; perfectly complementing an impressive public hospital system, caring midwives, and an attentive partner. Next time, I will hope for more luck, and I will use birth hypnosis again because my birth felt like a personal achievement – to which self-determination was the greatest contributor.
Have you tried hypnobirthing? Let us know your thoughts.