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Hypnobirthing 101

When I first dove into the birth world, I soon came across the term “hypnobirthing.” I had no idea what this meant, but two thoughts immediately came to mind: 1) This is ridiculous; 2) I LOVE it. After spending some time studying the method, I can say with confidence that these first impressions held true.

In short, hypnobirthing is a method of birthing that involves training the mind to elicit a deep state of relaxation on demand. The “original” hypnobirthing method was created by hypnotherapist and Harvard University Ford Foundation Fellow Marie Mongan. She stresses that the ability to birth is innate to women, but we have been socialized to believe otherwise.

Mongan’s approach runs counter to the medical management model that is laced into today’s obstetrician culture. The medical model treats pregnancy and birth as a painful, potentially dangerous condition that needs to be managed by medical attention. Instead, Mongan emphasizes a gentle method of birthing that mirrors nature. In essence, she tries to empower birthing mothers by reconnecting us with our natural maternal instincts to birth like animals rather than machines.

What is hypnosis?

Perhaps it’s best to first establish the things hypnosis is NOT. Namely, hypnosis is NOT:

  • Brainwashing

  • A loss of autonomy

  • A total loss of control

  • An immobile trance state

  • Magic/witchcraft/New Age supernatural woo-woo

  • Just for hippies

Instead, hypnosis is a state of focused deep relaxation in which we become highly receptive to verbal suggestions aiming to change our sensations, perceptions, thoughts, or behaviors. Learning to access and self-induce this state can be helpful for those of us who might experience fears around birthing. Fear can cause tension in the body, so if we carry fear with us into labor, we essentially fight the process and impede the natural opening that is meant to occur.

Techniques in hypnobirthing

Mongan’s method uses many techniques that are familiar to me as a yoga teacher, which is likely why the method quickly became so dear to my heart. Specifically, the techniques often mirror yoga nidra in that there’s a strong component of physical relaxation, breath awareness, and visualization.

Yet while yoga nidra is often much more general (although it can be specific to a certain intention), hypnobirthing is explicitly directed to the purpose of relaxing and opening for labor. For example, hypnobirthing asks us to envision images like a rose opening or blue satin ribbons unfolding to mirror the cervix dilating and the inner and outer layers of the uterine muscles separating, respectively. It also asks us to breathe the baby down – NOT push – when the time is right.

Also key to hypnobirthing is language. The method encourages the use of positive affirmations and includes a specific vocabulary that is intended to empower the birthing mother. For example, hypnobirthing has attempted to radically shift the following terms:

  • Surge/wave NOT contraction

  • Birthing NOT delivery

  • Birthing companion NOT labor coach

  • Pressure/sensation/tightening NOT pain

Does hypnobirthing work?

Now onto the million-dollar question: Does it actually work?

While I can’t speak from experience (yet!), there is some evidence to suggest that it is safe and effective to use during birthing. For example, one scientific review of five randomized control trials found hypnobirthing to result in reduced use of pharmacological pain relief, reduced augmentation/induction of labor, and increased spontaneous vaginal birth. Another study found hypnobirthing-trained mothers in Australia to have shorter labors on average compared to the general population. Finally, one scientific review that compared hypnobirthing and Bradley Method childbirth education classes found hypnobirthing to excel for individuals who have experienced trauma from prior birth experiences or who have fears around birthing.

But that sounds too good to be true…

Is there a catch to the hypnobirthing craze? Yes. It doesn’t work unless you practice it. There is some evidence to suggest that there is a dose-response to hypnobirthing’s effect. In other words, if we’ve never listened to a guided hypnobirthing meditation before, we can’t just put one on during labor and expect it to do anything (besides maybe annoy us). Our minds have to be conditioned to relax. We have to work at it.

So, ready to practice?

A sample hypnobirthing meditation

As you may be able to tell, I’ve been practicing conditioning my relaxation response quite a lot throughout the second and third trimesters with yoga nidra and hypnobirthing meditations. My hope is that by practicing, it will ease some of my anxiety about pregnancy during the pandemic and make my birthing process a little sweeter. Who knows, maybe it will even help others who find themselves in the same boat as me. I’ve strung together some of my favorite some of my favorite techniques and imagery in the sample hypnobirthing meditation below.

Will hypnobirthing work for me during my birthing? Stay tuned to find out.



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