Hypnobirthing 101: What is it and why I’m choosing it

I first heard about hypnobirthing from other bloggers. One of my clients at work was looking for parents of newborns so I ended up reading a whole lot of birth stories, and those that struck me most were the ones that were titled “Hypnobirth”. When I first saw the word, I was probably like you are now: skeptical. Like everyone I’ve said it to, I imagined it was something to do with hypnotising – well, why wouldn’t you?!

But when I found out I was pregnant, based on all those fantastically positive posts about hypnobirthing, it was something I started to look into more. It wasn’t until my cousin’s girlfriend told me about her recent birth using the techniques though that I was totally convinced. She and my cousin are both very down to earth people – in fact, my cousin is probably the last person on earth you could imagine uttering the word “hypnobirthing”, so with them being such huge advocates of it, I knew it was something special.

One reason why people might struggle to accept hypnobirthing as a method of approaching birth and labour is the “wishy-washy hippy” side that they think they’ve heard about. People assume that hypnobirthing is people claiming to have “natural” births (whatever that means!) with no pain relief, but using essential oils, music, visualisations etc. instead.

Before I launch fully into this post, the one big thing I want you to know is that hypnobirthing doesn’t mean any specific kind of birth: it can be compatible with vaginal births, C sections, inductions; pain relief free births and home births; medicated and hospital births.

We booked a course with a local hypnobirthing teacher, Susan Bradley at For Modern Mothers. The course took place over two weekends and cost £225 which included 10 hours of learning in a small group, a copy of the Katharine Graves Hypnobirthing book, a pack of hypnobirthing information, access to a Dropbox full of more resources including multiple relaxation MP3s, and homemade cakes and chocolate on the days!

[Gifted] I was also invited to review an online version of the KG Hypnobirthing course. I was provided access to this for free but the usual cost is £195 for access to online videos and resources for 1 year.

Hypnobirthing: what is it and why I'm choosing it

So the big question:

What is hypnobirthing?

Hypnobirthing is defined as a method of controlling fear, anxiety and pain during labour and birth using relaxation techniques. But for me and many others who look into hynobirthing, it’s so much more than that.

For me, The 5 Cs of Hypnobirthing (even though that sounds SO stereotypical) sum it up very well:

Being informed

On a personal level, hypnobirthing spoke to me mostly because I like to be fully informed. As a person who’s generally quite anxious about everything, I want to know in advance all the possible options, routes and processes that might happen. I know that birth most definitely can’t be planned, but knowing that I have choices makes all the difference to me.

We spent a very good amount of time in our hypnobirthing courses learning about the actual process of birth. We learned about how labour begins, how it progresses, what the different stages are, and what’s happening inside and outside your body during all this. It incorporated not only the physical side of birth, but also the physiology – what’s going on mentally when you’re going through labour and what your hormones are doing.

And by knowing what each of these stages are and what options we had at each stage, you’re able to make choices that you want to make.

One of my friends had a negative birth experience a few years ago followed by a more positive one last year – even though it was still a complicated birth. The first piece of advice she gave me was to be speak up. To use the choices I have and the information I’ve got to make my own decisions. She was unhappy with her birth when choices were taken away from her and she was left panicking.

The choices we were made informed of, for example, that I wouldn’t have necessarily thought about before include:

We were also taught how we can make these choices. One of things I highlighted when we were asked why we’d chosen the course was that I was overwhelmed with the vast amount of information. As I talked about in my birth plan post, I originally just planned to just go with whatever the medical staff told me to do because I was scared of even considering otherwise (and the fear part is a key thing in a minute too!). While I totally understand that medical staff will ultimately know the best thing to do, we learned that it was important to know that you do have options – sometimes you might be being pushed towards an induction, for example, simply because you’re approaching your due date and it’s easier for them, but this might result in a more medicalised birth.

I won’t give opinions here on what I personally believe about birth – mostly because I haven’t done it before (yet!), but also because I’m not an expert. But what we learned was to make your decisions based on evidence and always consider what other options you might have. If you’re being rushed into having a C section for a breech birth, for example, but you really don’t want to, you (or your birth partner) can ask: “Is there another option?” Sometimes, that might not be the case; sometimes waiting a while might get baby to flip; sometimes you can have an intervention to help baby flip. It’s all about education, knowing what you can do and making those decisions for you.

The bit that scared me about this though was actually speaking up about these choices. I’m not a confrontational person at all, so I’d be scared to tell the midwife otherwise if they’re suggesting something I don’t really want. Fortunately, we talked a lot about how to approach this – simply asking it as a question, and the KG Hypnobirthing book and online course also gives some really handy phrases to use too. This is also where the role of the birth partner comes in – someone who can know what you want and help to make decisions for you to protect the environment you’re in.

Hypnobirthing: what is it and why I'm choosing it

Understanding the birth environment

As I said, knowing my choices and the fact that I can make decisions about my labour is really important to me. But more important is understanding it.

One of the big things that’s covered in hypnobirthing courses is what’s happening between your body and your brain – the hormones and chemicals that go into giving birth alongside the physical process.

Think about this in terms of animals when they give birth. A cat finds a quiet, calm, protected space, away from predators so that they can give birth without fear. They also know that this is the natural thing for their body to do – it’s natural instinct and intuitive, our bodies are designed to give birth.

And the process follows this. If your body is releasing adrenaline, you tense up, you feel fear – this is the fight, flight or freeze instinct. People find that labour can slow and become more painful when they become frightened about what’s happening.

So understanding that you need to allow your body to release chemicals that help birth along the way – oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins – will help that birth to progress. These natural chemicals (called the parasympathetic nervous system) are what cause birth to progress – without them, birth doesn’t happen properly. They can also help to reduce pain – although I can’t make any claims about that yet! – and result in a positive birth experience in keeping blood and oxygen flowing and your muscles (such as your uterus – it’s just one big muscle after all!) working as they should be.

Trusting your body, creating an environment you feel comfortable in and not feeling observed can help your body to release these chemicals naturally. That environment might be different for everyone, but generally they advise:

The “Practical” Side of Birthing

Both the online and offline course also went through some practical aspects of birthing, including movement during labour and positions you can give birth in. We got up around the room and tried out some of these different positions – again, to find out what the options are and what might work best for us.

There was also a lot of discussion around inductions and realistic due dates – a very practical part of birth really!

What’s good about hypnobirthing is that they don’t sway either way in favour of or against anything, letting you make your own decisions, but they did explain why it might make more sense not to rush into induction and to always ask what the options are and why it’s being suggested.

The main point was around due dates and how inaccurate they are. For example, we had a couple in our course who know their exact conception date as it was through IVF, yet the hospital gave a due date of over a week earlier based on the size measured at a scan – it means that they’ll be offered an induction at an earlier date than their conception would suggest (ie. 40 weeks according to their due date would be only 39 weeks according to the actual conception date). With everyone’s cycles being different too, due dates can be so inaccurate.

On top of that, babies don’t all grow at the same rate. Some are born perfectly ready at 37 weeks, whereas this may be too early for others and they need an extra few weeks inside, meaning they’re born at 41 or 42 weeks and are perfectly ready then. If you think about how children grow too, this makes sense. Also different countries have different ideas of when “overdue” is – ie. the UK’s given pregnancy length is 40 weeks, whereas France’s is 41 weeks. On top of that, different areas might advise differently – my local area will book you in for an induction (unless you specify you’d prefer otherwise) at 40 weeks, whereas other areas will wait until 41 or 42 and some might advise earlier.

The teacher also went through the medical reasons behind inductions being necessary in some cases, such as rising rates of pre-eclampsia after a certain number of weeks, waters breaking but the mother not going into labour within 24+ hours, other conditions in mother/baby that may require birth to be induced etc.

And then there’s the different levels of induction, starting from the mild stuff you can do at home (walking, sex, eating certain foods), going up to a gentle stretch and sweep, then breaking waters artificially, pessaries and hormone injections. It seems to be a “ladder” you can climb, and each might have a different reason behind it plus different risks. Some of the risks for the higher levels included needing a higher level of medical intervention, for example.

It’s a bit of a minefield really! We mainly discussed how it’s always important to weigh up the benefits and risks of each and to always ask for these to be explained to you rather than going with it “just because” – in most cases, if a doctor or midwife has suggested it, they will have a good reason, whereas other situations, maybe not. For example, apparently our local area started sending computer generated letters with induction appointments prebooked for women at 40 weeks which they would receive at 38-39 weeks, which seems totally counter-intuitive as it should be based on the individual.

And I want to just add here that I completely understand that even with all this understanding of your choices, finding evidence-based information, using the practical labouring techniques, and even with the perfect birth environment, labour and birth aren’t always going to go completely straightforward. Even with all the right hormones released, you may still need medical interventions. But fortunately, some of the hypnobirthing techniques we learned can help, even through emergency C sections.

Hypnobirthing: what is it and why I'm choosing it

Techniques

And finally, the hypnobirthing techniques themselves! This is the part that people find a bit “wishy washy”, but as someone who’s already a bit of a yoga nut, they make sense to me.

The big one is relaxation techniques to keep you in that positive environment and mindset including breathing and visualisations. I already use yoga breathing to help calm me in stressful situations, so I know it’s something that works for me. Deep and slow breathing helps to release the hormones that help birth to progress whereas rapid and shallow breathing will cause the release of adrenaline and can get you more into a state of fear.

One way we were taught to do the breathing and visualisations was to get the birth partner to read scripts out. And this is one bit that we’re actually not planning to do! Literally any time we’ve tried, Ben and I dissolve into laughter! While this is pretty awesome for that early labour stage, it’s not going to keep me in a relaxed mindset during later stages – it just shows how you can take hypnobirthing to work for you.

Having affirmations and mantras to read during your pregnancy and labour are another handy technique to remind you that you’re confident and your body is doing what it does best. I’ve had a confidence mantra for a while, even before being pregnant, and it helps me.

Essential oils and aromatherapy are often recommended as a relaxation technique in labour, and this is something I’m personally excited about. But really only because we already use essential oils – I don’t think they’re a miracle cure to pain or will work perfectly to relax everyone! I’m essentially already “programmed” to relax with lavender oil since we diffuse it every single night to go to sleep. There is some evidence to say that certain oils work different things – such as clary sage helping with contractions – but I believe that most of it is what you believe. I’ll be using them during labour if I can because what harm can it do (as long as you’ve researched them correctly!).

A final technique is surrounding yourself with positive energy, such as avoiding negative birth stories that can work you up into a state of fear which really doesn’t help with birth. Avoiding negative language, such as “pain”, is also a big one. I do believe in the power of language and have added the “pain” thing to my birth plan, however only to an extent – I’m asking people to ask if I’m “comfortable” rather than “in pain”. For example, if someone asked you right now: “Do you feel any pain right now?”, you’d scan your body looking for something and find that maybe your big toe hurts, or your back is aching, then you focus in on that spot. If you were asked “Are you comfortable?”, you don’t search for pain. I’m not fussed about words like “contraction” being swapped for “surge” though, as I don’t find “contraction” to be a word that has negative connotations anyway – again, taking it and adapting to work for us.

The Role of the Birth Partner

And a quick final point, hypnobirthing strongly emphasises the role of the birth partner as being active in the birth. I think the biggest testament to hypnobirthing being a good thing is that Ben has jumped on it and grabbed it with both hands. He was very skeptical when I booked the course – I think he thought it was a waste of money – but he came out preaching about everything he’d learned and how “hypnobirthing” is totally the wrong word for it. He’s a very logical and practical person, and it totally appealed to him.

While people keep laughing and telling me that Ben won’t want to be anywhere near me while I’m in labour, he’s fully committed to supporting me through pregnancy, labour and birth as a result of hypnobirthing. It not only gives your partner a role in the very beginning of your baby’s life too, so they can start the bonding process and feel involved in the birth, but it also helps the person giving birth.

Our birth plan has Ben as the primary decision maker, because we’ve discussed every option and choice we can think of, and I trust Ben to be able to make decisions for me. Keeping the finer details of labour away from the person labouring is quite a good idea, as it turns out – it can slow labour if you feel stressed about it. As such, Ben is going to be the first person to receive information which he can then choose to keep from me (if he thinks it would worry me), relay back to me himself, or allow the medical staff to discuss with me directly. This could be anything from pain relief options to medical interventions.

And as I keep telling everyone, I need him right there to provide me with snacks!

Hypnobirthing: what is it and why I'm choosing it

Takeaways

(Not of that kind, I wish!)

I just wanted to throw in a few takeaways, since this post is SO huge!

I would recommend looking into hypnobirthing to literally anyone who’s pregnant. It might be that not everything clicks with you, but even if you just pick up a new technique to try, learn more about the choices you have for pain relief, understand the process of birth better, hypnobirthing is worth a look. I’d say to read a book on it first, whether that’s the official KG Hypnobirthing one (which has all the information the courses have, but without the interactive elements) or another such as Your Birth, Your Baby to dip your toe in then make a decision about whether to do a course. I’d highly recommend a course so that your birth partner can get properly involved too, and so that you can meet other parents to be.

Of course, I’m planning to come back and update you with a full birth story later on, so that will include more on whether hypnobirthing actually worked for me during the birth or not. Either way, it’s been an excellent tool throughout my pregnancy as I still haven’t yet had that moment of fear about labour and birth. Even if the only way it ends up helping me is keeping calm and keeping anxiety to a minimum throughout pregnancy, that’s a win in my books!

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