Bump Club: Beverley Turner on hypnotheraphy and childbirth
BBC Radio 5 live
By Beverley Turner: Perhaps more remarkable than the reports of Duchess of Cambridge using hypnotherapy to prepare for birth is the public response to the story. Just a few years ago, such a suggestion could have prompted cries of outrage at such mumbo jumbo: “What will she do: get up off the bed and start clucking like a chicken?”.
It’s amazing that we reserved Brits no longer leap to such conclusions about something sounds so ‘alternative’. Having said that, at a Royal Society of Medicine I conference I attended last week the researchers in charge of the first NHS clinical trial into hypnotheraphy - results of which will be released in July - noticed a significant uptake in volunteers when they dropped the word ‘hypnosis’ and replaced it with ‘deep relaxation.’
Fundamentally, that’s all it is: ‘deep relaxation'. ‘Hypnobirthing’ stems from a traditionally American model developed in the 1980s by a woman called Marie Mongan. She used the findings of obstetrician and author Grantly Dick-Read to develop the visualisation and deep breathing techniques that became known as ‘hypnobirthing.’ Dick-Read noticed that women who were relaxed felt less pain, had quicker, smoother labours and reported much more positive birth experiences: the concept of mind over matter.
I used hypnobirthing with my first baby and can categorically say I couldn’t have had a normal, drug-free birth without it. At the very least it gave me confidence, but it also gave me something to do with my mind rather than obsessing about dilations and timing contractions.
The hypnobirth concept is based on the cycle of fear, tension and pain; the more you are frightened, the more you tense up, the more you tense up, the more it hurts. So there are breathing techniques to help manage tension and stay calm. There’s also a great deal of emphasis on effectively cleaning out our subconscious minds – getting rid of all those negative, terrifying, traumatizing birth stories that we hear from the moment we can comprehend it.
Hypnobirthing teaches you to have confidence in your body. To believe in a woman’s ability to birth unaided. It uses visualisations to ‘go inside’ your body, helping it to relax and do what it instinctively wants to do. There’s lots of emphasis on the language of birth: contractions are called surges; the word ‘pain’ is banned and you are encouraged to see your uterus opening up like a flower. It worked for me – and thousands of testimonies across the world demonstrate that if you can turn off your busy, conscious mind, stop the flow of adrenalin and therefore allow natural oxytocin to flow, you can birth more easily.
However....I was still shocked by the pain of my first birth. It wasn’t unbearable – it was definitely manageable - but with so much emphasis on a ‘pain free’ experience, I was taken by surprise.
Hypnobirthing also encourages the partner to play a key role in helping the woman to stay calm. My husband James didn’t entirely buy into it (funnily enough) and so I felt a bit disappointed about his contribution during the birth. At one point when he asked if I was ok I growled, “Don’t ask me if I’m ok...TELL me I’m ok!” and wailed, “You should have read the ******* book!”
After I’d had my son I started to study hypnotherapy as part of a wider course of psychotherapies, and so could identify its limitations. For instance, I didn’t want to visualise the goings-on in my body during birth. I wanted to escape – to go to a completely different place in my mind’s eye. And I now knew that for me birth wouldn’t be ‘pain-free’ (even though it can be for some women). So that theory wasn’t going to help.
For my second child, I devised my own form of deep relaxation: a combination of everything I knew from hypnobirthing with a few of my own twists. My expectations of James were minimal – just a few reminders to drop my shoulders, relax my jaw and go to the safe place in my mind. It was magical. I spent the entire birth on a beautiful secluded beach watching the waves come and go. Imagining waves is a brilliant way of ‘riding out’ contractions and I almost didn’t want it to end. Even now if I’m having a bad day I’ll close my eyes and go to that beach.
My third pregnancy was much more stressful as James had sustained a serious brain injury having been knocked off his bike, and that made him difficult to live with. One of the major effects was an inability to feel empathy. If there is one time a girl needs a bit of husbandly empathy it’s during pregnancy!
My midwife gave me a box of hypnotheraphy CDs. I loved them. They acknowledged pain as a positive step towards meeting your baby, which is a much easier concept to get your head round when contractions kick in. I was struggling to spontaneously labour. But thirty minutes after listening to a hypnotheraphy “birth rehearsal” CD my waters broke; we had a baby within two hours. I literally felt a mental block shift and I knew I was ready to go.
Regardless of the type of birth that you have, being in a relaxed mindset and feeling calm is wonderfully beneficial. Some obstetricians now use hypnotherapy CDs during elective C-sections to keep the mothers relaxed - a slow, steady heart-rate is beneficial to minimise bleeding and keep baby chilled out. Many mothers who use hypnosis report a positive experience even if they end up with an emergency section.
If rumours are to be believed, the Duchess is using hypnotherapy CDs to prepare for the water-birth that she reportedly wants. I dearly hope she gets it. Some of my most rewarding moments in life have come from women who I have cornered at a party and bored to tears about this topic, only to bump into them some time later to hear, “I did the hypnotherapy thing and it was amazing! Thank you!”
Try it. You have nothing to lose and it will give you relaxation skills that you will have forever. Must go – there’s a beach waiting for me...
Bump Club is on BBC Radio 5 live at 11am on Sunday mornings. You can subscribe to the podcast here.