Talk to a mother about childbirth and more often than not she will cross her legs and wince at the memory. Having a baby is painful, we all know that don’t we? At least that’s the impression I got as I prepared to deliver my first child four years ago.
Friends who had already gone through the process were tactfully mute on the subject at the time. Not so at my antenatal class. During the half day course, I listened wide-eyed as the midwives ran through the array of pain relief available to me when d-day finally arrived. The message was clear - this was going to be something I had to get through, not embrace or enjoy.
Inevitably, my birthing experience was frightening and painful. During each contraction, I gritted my teeth, waiting for it to be over so by the end I was close to despair. This was a recipe for disaster. As I was to learn later, the worst thing I could have done was tense up. In the end, I begged to have an epidural.
Two years later and newly pregnant for a second time, I found myself chatting to a fellow mum at a party and was amazed when she described how wonderful her labour had been. In fact, I think she even went so far as to say it was enjoyable. Really? I had already begun dreading the thought of going through it all again, but what if I could have a birth like hers? Just what was her secret? The answer, she enthused, was hypnobirthing. By the next day, I had found a course near me and signed up.
The classes took place in the front room of hypnobirthing instructor, Rose Byrne where myself and two other blossoming pregnant ladies (who, like me, had had horrible first births too) sat on her sofa rubbing our bumps and listening to exactly what we have to do to achieve our utopian birth. The idea, she explains, is to use breathing techniques and imagery to stay so relaxed that the surges – not contractions, this is too negative a word – feel more akin to a gentle pressure or tightening. To back this up, she shows us footage of women using hypnobirthing to have what looks like remarkably quiet and peaceful births. Crikey, I think, this might just work. Rose certainly seems to think so. ‘Using the hypnobirthing techniques worked like a switch during my birth to turn off the panic, tension and pain,’ Rose assures us. ‘When I arrived at hospital, I was so calm the midwives were thinking of sending me home but when they examined me I was 8cm dilated. I will always remember the look of amazement on the face of the midwife. Luckily, since then, hypnobirths are becoming more popular now so calm labouring mums are not automatically dismissed as “not yet in established labour”.’
Rose was completely converted by the success she had with hypnobirthing and quit her job as an account manager in the aviation industry to train as a hypnobirther so she could help other women have the kind of birth she had.
The course she teaches uses the Mongan Method, devised by Marie Mongan who had managed to have calm, drug-free births after reading a book by Dr Grantly Dick-Read that talked about the Fear-Tension-Pain Syndrome, the theory being that what causes pain during birth is the fear of pain. He had witnessed women in slums giving birth using little more than gentle breathing, a far cry from the agony and terror experienced by his more affluent patients in London. The doctor realised that it was the expectation of the pain, and the tension that comes with that, which was working against the natural tightening and relaxing of the muscles of the uterus during labour and causing painful spasms.
“When I arrived at hospital, I was so calm the midwives were thinking of sending me home but when they examined me I was 8cm dilated”
First off, if you are worried that the term “hypno” means swinging pendulums and being put into glass-eyed trances then think again. There is no hypnosis involved, well not that sort anyway. Only self-hypnosis. It is all about using the breathing techniques and imagery to condition your mind and body so when your baby starts to arrive, you are in control and completely confident that your body can go ahead and do what comes most naturally of all – give birth.
During the classes (four mornings in total with a refresher session nearer our due dates) we practice breathing – counting steadily in and out, slower for between surges, a little faster during them. We discuss different images we would like to think about while we breathe to help us achieve an even deeper relaxed state. Mine is a big red balloon, which fills with air as I fill my lungs and floats majestically away into a clear blue sky as I exhale – the metaphor being the tension and fear leaving my body and floating away too. We are given two CDs to take away to practice our relaxation exercises with. The “affirmations” disc has empowering statements reassuring the listener that she can have the birth she wants repeated in a calming voice, and the other, which I prefer, with just relaxation music. As someone not prone to just sitting for sitting’s sake, I find doing my homework rather wonderful as it forces me to take the time to stop racing around and simply relax – something that isn’t easy when you have a toddler to look after as well as a growing bump. I try to do the exercises every day once my son is asleep, either lying on my bed or soaking in the tub.
In the class, Rose talks about different tried and tested positions to ease the birth (the standard lying on your back does not help gravity). She even gives us a list of phrases to say if the medical staff try to intervene and you are unsure if this is the direction you want to take. She is keen for us to try and make the space we birth in, if we are not at home, to be as homely as we can make it. The hospital room, a notoriously starchy and clinical place, can be quickly softened she advises by scented candles, photos of loved ones and our own pillows. She suggests covering the clocks (no pressure, just listening to your body and nothing else) and hanging a sign outside the door to let the midwives know you are having a hypnobirth and prevent them from crashing noisily in just when you have achieved that perfect symmetry of peace and tranquillity.
So did it work for me? I like to think it did. While I admit that my birth was certainly not painfree, I used the breathing techniques through every surge and was amazed that when I arrived at the hospital I was practically fully dilated. Our daughter Emily arrived just 20 minutes after we walked through the doors of the delivery suite. My midwife didn’t even manage to fill out her paperwork (and I was not able to make the room more “homely” although this was the last thing on my mind) and I just had time for a few puffs of gas and air before the room filled with the sound of our crying newborn. I breathed through the whole thing with no pain relief.
Clare Smith, who also did Rose’s course, was equally delighted at how much the techniques helped her achieve the birth she had always dreamed about. ‘I didn’t think I’d be able to be focused enough to do it and if we were just able to start labour in a positive way we would be very happy with that but by the last session of the course we were even looking forward to the birth,’ says Clare. ‘In the end I had a very calm birth in just two and a half hours. I didn’t even feel my daughter coming or being born. It was just amazing.’
Hypnobirthing doesn’t mean you will have a textbook hypnobirth but doing the course should give you the tools to remain calm and in control however your baby decides to come into the world, as fellow hypnobirther, Sabrina Steiner found out when she arrived at hospital. ‘I had hoped for a calm waterbirth but instead I was induced and ended up with a hard and fast labour,’ explains Sabrina. ‘However the course had shown us how to prepare for whatever turn your birthing takes and once I was able to apply the hypnobirthing techniques, it helped make the best of the situation and I am convinced it stopped me from having an epidural.’
And it isn’t all about the mum-to-be - partners are encouraged to come along to at least one session on the course and are invited to join in with the breathing techniques. They are also shown how to do light touch massage, a very light fingertip massage designed to release endorphins and promote relaxation. ‘It is fantastic that partners are involved too and, although my husband was sceptical, he loved going and was looking forward to the next session. He even got used to watching the birthing videos,’ laughs Sabrina. ‘The course took away a lot of the fear of birth, especially for my husband and it was great that he had a specific role to play so that he felt useful.’
Incredibly, the first time around for me, there had been no talk of breathing and keeping calm, no thought to empowerment or listening to my body. Fear had been the overriding
feeling and that is what overwhelmed me when I had my son. But as is so often the case, it is the fear of something that is worse than the reality.
‘I’ve been scared of giving birth my whole life,’ says Lainey Norman, another disciple of Rose’s. ‘I just knew this course would help me, I had no doubts. I had no drugs, no pain, no screaming and my husband had no squeezed hands or scratches!’
Alice lives in Dorset with her husband and two children
FIND Details of Rose Byrne’s classes at rosehypno.com
LEARN There’s a course in hypnobirthing in Brighton in Oct and one in Northampton in Nov - hypnobirthing.co.uk
READ Hypnobirthing: The Breakthrough to Safer, Easier, More Comfortable Childbirth by Marie Mongan
CREATING THE BEST BIRTHING ENVIRONMENT:
- If going into hospital try and get a tour of the unit beforehand, or at the very least familiarize yourself with the route and the reception area. This will reduce any unconscious anxiety on the day.
- Make sure that the lights are dimmed and low. Think about the type of environment you would like to sleep in and try and emulate that.
- Ask for fewer interruptions. Ideally on your birth plan give permission to the midwives upfront to listen to the baby with a Doppler whenever they need to, that way you won’t be interrupted for permission every 15/20 minutes – if you are using deep relaxation techniques this is very important.
- Have some relaxation music to help you relax.
- Take your own pillow in. Not only will the scent on the pillow remind you of your bed, a safe secure place and trigger a deep sense of calm in your mind and in your body, but on a practical note pillows are hard to come by in maternity units!
- Use aromatherapy oils (many hospitals offer this)
- Make sure that your birthing partner and you have discussed your options for birth beforehand so you are confident that he/she can advocate on your behalf and that he/she understands and feels secure in their role as birthing partner.
- Stimulate oxytocin! Take something from a room at home that you love and feel very relaxed in, or a photo that makes you smile and feel happy whenever you look at it.
- Move any clocks or anything related to time from the mother’s view and avoid ‘clockwatching’. A birthing mother when she is properly in her birthing zone will experience what is known as time distortion. Meaning that she will be unaware of time passing, many women who have used hypnobirthing will think that their labour was much quicker than it really was.
- Keep the room calm, anxiety is contagious and if your birthing partner is anxious you will pick up on that anxiety.
With thanks to Sophie at mindfulmamma.co.uk.
How to learn the art of relaxation for birth
For women giving birth naturally, the most critical skill to master is relaxation, says Catherine Beier, author and birthing partner. It may seem odd to consider relaxation a skill, but indeed it is.
- Maintaining relaxation in the face of the unknown, in the midst of the emotional journey into motherhood, can be a daunting task. If negative thoughts or self-doubt creep into your mind, they can undermine your ability to turn your body over to birthing and ultimately make your birthing a painful experience.
- To illustrate the skill of maintaining relaxation amidst distraction, Pam England, in her book Birthing from Within, suggests taking the “ice cube” test: holding an ice cube in your hand when you think you’re completely relaxed. After a few minutes, you will most likely find that your “relaxation” has vanished.
- Relaxation techniques can be applied to every aspect of your life. The benefits of relaxation for improving people’s physical and mental health have been well documented.
- To birth your baby, your body must open. Tense, tight muscles impede that opening. If you condition your body now to stay relaxed in the face of distraction, you will be better equipped to slip into deep relaxation during labour and birth. Read Catherine’s blog at givingbirthnaturally.com.
BIRTH CALMING CHECKLIST
- Do whatever you can to say YES to birthing your baby.
- Tune in and connect to your baby and your self.
- Listen to your body. Listen to your emotions and internal needs.
- Is there anything you need to release? What are you anxious about? Is there anyone you need to ask to leave? Nothing is silly, even the smallest of things is greatly important if it is interfering with your birth.
- Follow your instincts – they might be entirely different to what you think.
- Surrender and hand birthing over to your baby and your body – no need to overthink it!
- Stay present with yourself and your baby, avoid unnecessary conversation.
- Do whatever you want to be at ease.
- Ask those present to be as quiet as possible.
- Create dark, sacred space if you can – our bodies prefer dark, warm, quiet spaces to give birth.
- To open yourself up wide, you need to feel very safe. You also need to say YES to your body with every surge.