Myths about hypnosis birth preparation
by Sophie Fletcher @mindfulmamma
I’m writing this article on hypnosis birth preparation when I should be doing the final edits on my book . But I’ve been reading a thread on hypnosis birth preparation on Facebook that has pressed a few buttons. It’s 7am and the children are STILL asleep, so I thought I’d use this small window of time to write about what hypnosis birth preparation is and isn’t.
Thankfully hypnosis birth preparation is becoming more mainstream, but at the same time its true potency as a tool to prepare for birth is in danger of being diluted by people who are jumping on the hypnosis birth preparation bandwagon.
Hypnosis is a serious therapy, I’ve been a hypnotherapist for 8 years, I’m a Fellow of the National Council for Hypnotherapy, and I’ve have always taught hypnosis birth preparation.
Hypnotherapists have used hypnosis for years as birth preparation, in fact I have a book sitting on my desk right now from the 1950’s which extolls the value of hypnosis birth preparation. My interest is in the psychological process of birth – what happens to us as women beneath the surface – and the impact of social cultural conditioning in how we automatically behave towards birth. I have a Masters in European Culture, specializing in symbolism and individuation (okay that’s a bit too academic for a blog) and am a slightly obsessed with how our bodies and minds respond automatically to external symbols at birth. Sheela Na Gigs – bring it on!
I’m really excited about my book “Mindful Hypnobirthing” being published by Random House, as the more I read, the more I realise that the real value of hypnosis birth preparation is forgotten or buried beneath hearsay. I really want to shout about it. Bringing people’s attention to the fact that it does work and is important, but also why it works and when it’s a good tool to use. At Mindful Mamma we work with the women who are frightened of losing control (I talk about the different guises of control in the book in detail), or just want some additional techniques to keep them focused during the birth, through to women who have been under psychiatric care for anxiety and women who are booked for a caesarean birth because they are too scared to have a normal birth.
Here are common myths about hypnosis birth preparation
Hypnosis Birth Preparation is the same as relaxation
No it’s not! When you are using hypnosis birth preparation you are entering into a brain state called an alpha (light hypnosis) or theta (deep hypnosis) state. It feels a bit like going to sleep. You choose to enter that state, usually with someone trained in hypnosis. Messages (positive suggestions) are sent to your limbic system in your brain. This is the old part of your brain that holds all your automatic responses, from making a cup of tea while chatting to your friend, to driving your car on a familiar journey while thinking about something else. We are conditioned to respond to the world around us through repetitive action. This is also where automatic responses we don’t like so much are stored. Have a phobia? Think it’s entirely irrational and feel an idiot when your body jumps up and down, screams, freezes and cries when you see a spider/beetle/get on a plane? That’s your limbic system saying “hey, we don’t like this, we saw your loving mum, the person that keeps you alive, run away from a spider when you were 6 months old, so it’s dangerous”. The limbic system overrides rational and logical thought when it’s about survival.
Many women are pre-conditioned to be frightened about birth by what they have heard and seen. Imagine your mind as the British Library, every experience you’ve ever had is stored there under its own reference section. So when your body needs to know how to respond it goes to your birth section; if your birth section is filled with negative stories, about trauma, pain and loss of control, your body doesn’t want to do it – it’s dangerous and the automatic response is similar to a phobia – flight, flight or freeze. Hypnosis changes that response by working with that part of your brain. I’ve seen people overcome severe phobias in as little as an hour or two hours.
Relaxation exercises are not the same. The SHIP trial on hypnosis for birth found they had more uptake when they described hypnosis as ‘deep relaxation’, which misinforms women and perpetuates the myth that deep relaxation is the same. If you learn relaxation for birth, it doesn’t stop that unconscious fear rearing up whenever your feel threatened or something unfamiliar happens during your birth and triggering fight or flight.
You are keeping your neo-cortex active when it should be shutting down
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Well you shouldn’t anyway. I do know some ways of teaching hypnosis birth preparation where women have so many techniques they haven’t had the time to condition them properly and, during the birth are actively thinking about which technique to use and when. This defeats the whole purpose of how I believe women should be using hypnosis birth preparation. I’m not saying my way is the right way, but my view is from teaching hundreds of women and being a doula.
The aim is to prepare a women using hypnosis, so when she goes into birth her reference section in her unconscious library is full of positive images/messages about birth and her body relaxes into it rather than fighting it and thinking it’s something she doesn’t want to do. Her neo-cortex should be resting; women naturally go into a theta or alpha state during birth when they are unconsciously accepting of the process. Hypnosis birth preparation should be about giving women the confidence to birth. When they are confident at deep level, then all they have to be is be mindfully aware. Following their breath and turning within.
It disassociates a woman from her birth
See above myth #2; good effective hypnosis birth preparation means the opposite. It helps a women become more aware and more accepting of what is happening during the birth. I’ve seen women who have used hypnosis birth preparation really turning within, using mindfulness techniques during the birth. It brings attention to the physical process but also the psychological process; women are more able to observe feelings that arise as part of the birth, such as fear of letting go or fear of death.
(I’ve heard the disassociation one often and it’s such a shame that some famous birth advocates still have this belief)
With hypnosis birth preparation you are calm and quiet
There are a lot of women I have on my classes because they want hypnosis to keep them calm, quiet and in control. For me this often tells me what her fear is; women are driven to hypnosis birth preparation because of the fear of losing control, a result of cultural conditioning. ‘It’s not socially acceptable to ‘lose it’ in front of strangers.’ In fact hypnosis birth preparation should give a woman the confidence to express herself, in any way she chooses, and for her support/partner to support her unconditionally in that. I’ve been at births where you couldn’t tell a mum was having a contraction, and I’ve been at births where mums have screamed “get me an epidural” at transition.
I’ve even heard midwives say when a woman had made a lot of noise, “that’s not proper hypnobirthing”. A woman shouldn’t have to suppress that natural expression during labour, it’s part of the process and sometimes it feels good.
The birth partners attending our class are taught to let go of their own judgment around pain and fear and to know that if she roars like a lion, it’s ok and you don’t have to offer her gas and air.
A hypnobirth is pain free
Now this is an interesting one. I talk a lot about sensations of birth and how our brain interprets them. A lot of our experience is perception, but also anxiety. Personally I feel that if a woman is birthing normally she can feel very strong sensations, but not label them as pain. Hypnosis can also change sensations and it can dampen them completely, based on the skill of the practitioner and the work the mother has done in her birth preparation. People have operations under hypnosis – need I say more.
The Mongan approach that women should not feel any pain if they are free of fear, I was unable to subscribe to, not because I don’t believe it’s possible, I understand the principles and the concept. The theory is sound, but I think that women are faced with too many challenges in some units and that also a woman’s own pathology and belief system contribute to their physical experience of birth. I get very upset by women feeling that they’ve ‘failed’ because it hurt.
BUT what is very interesting about this is whether women CHOOSE to have a pain free birth. (hypnosis is about choice – I can’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to do). When working with couples privately I always say to mothers, on a scale of 0-10 with 10 being the strongest and 0 being nothing, how do you want to experience birth? It always ends up at 4/5 – these women at some level want to embrace birth and see those sensations as important. Hypnosis allows them to be, just be with those sensations, and to be able to embrace and surrender to them.
Women who have done hypnobirthing would have had a great birth anyway
Maybe, maybe not. But to be honest 4 out of 5 women have anxiety about birth and are focusing on intervention and pain relief before the birth. If you can work with them and help then tap into their own coping mechanisms, reframe their belief around birth it creates a shift. Where focus goes, energy flows.
The women we work with are not always already converted to normal birth. As a doula I’ve been at births where I could see the trajectory of the birth if they weren’t using hypnosis for birth preparation.
And this brings me on to my next point…..
Hypnosis birth preparation is just for normal birth
This is the one that saddens me the most. I work with a lot of women who have medical complications, for some reason as a doula I seem to attract them. I have only had three homebirths, the rest in high risk obstetric units. I have had doctors with their jaws on the floor watching a mother contract on a syntocinon drip while she has a conversation with him in early stages, I’ve seen consultants thank me for ‘whatever I’ve done’ with women who have collapsed veins so they can get a cannula in first time. I even had one midwife at a home birth, disbelieving at first, ask me to do a hypnosis visualisation whenever she did my client’s blood pressure, as it stopped a transfer.
I have been at caesarean births, prepared women for them, and I know that hypnosis works amazingly at many different types of births by giving women the confidence to make a choice that is right for them. I don’t judge them, I don’t steer them, I allow them the space to find their own informed birth journey and it’s always amazing when they meet their baby – whatever birth they have they know that they made choices with a clear head and that they had their best birth.
The truth about hypnosis for birth is that hypnosis birth preparation is about a positive birth experience, not just a normal birth experience.