Can you hypnotize yourself to a pain-free birth?

Babe, you’ve got the power. What power? Power of voodoo. Who do? You do. Here’s how hypnosis can work in childbirth.

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Childbirth is terrifying. Whether it’s your first or your fifth, you have no idea what it will be like for you and your baby. So, the idea that you can use your mind to move through a scary, painful experience like labour is miraculous.

Like most expectant women who seek out hypnosis coaching before their due dates, I was highly motivated by fear: I’ve been told it hurts, and I’ve seen in movies that it hurts. But how intensely, and for how long? I was reluctant to have an epidural: I am afraid of needles and was worried about the side effects for me and my baby. Would it interfere with breastfeeding and bonding? I was overthinking and overanticipating the delivery in every way. I needed to calm down, and the occasional prenatal yoga class just wasn’t cutting it.

My hatha yoga instructor also led an eight-week hypnobirthing course for couples, so I signed us up. I’d had a pretty dreamy pregnancy, but my inscrutable birth loomed large. I hoped that a touch of hypnosis could fly me over my anxiety so that I could magically find my baby on the other side.

Along with patterned breathing, massage techniques and hydrotherapy, hypnosis is a tool that women can use for a pain-free, or pain-managed, birth. It’s the practice of moving past the conscious mind—the place that recognizes and freaks out about pain—to a state of inner focus and absorption, or what is known as “trance,” according to Shawn Gallagher, a former midwife and board-certified hypnotist in Toronto. “When the conscious mind is distracted or offline, we’re less likely to perceive the presence of pain,” she says.

In fact, new research has shown that hypnosis creates actual physical changes in our neurology, hormone levels and endorphin (natural anaesthetic) response. “You imagine that you have more endorphins, which leads the body to make more endorphins,” says Gallagher. “Using your mind is safe for both you and your baby, and it’s legal. It’s pretty cool when you think about it.”

I’m pretty crappy at savasana (I use my time on the mat to make my grocery list), so I couldn’t quite imagine how I’d distract my mind long enough for my cervix to get to 10 centimetres. But I was also damn determined to try. “The primary motivation of most women I see is fear of pain,” says Gallagher. She also coaches women who are planning to deliver at home or at birthing centres and those who can’t get epidurals for medical reasons because they don’t have many options for pain management. She has even helped women who are afraid of needles to use hypnosis for their epidurals.

For Ehrin Albright, mom to two kids aged one and four, taking hypnosis classes during her first pregnancy helped her regain a sense of autonomy over her body. “We had been on a very bumpy, two-year-plus infertility road, and the whole process was very medicalized,” says Albright. “Hypnosis regrounded us and reminded us that pregnancy and childbirth are extremely natural.”

Hypnosis is definitely a way to feel in control, says Gallagher. “You can’t predict when the next contraction will come or regulate how strong it will be, but you can control your response to it,” she says.

What is this magic spell?
Hypnosis isn’t the kind of stupor induced by some illusionist swinging his vintage pocket watch before your eyes. Trance is actually a pretty everyday thing: It happens to daydreamers, along with all of us when we lose an hour scrolling through Instagram (one of the side effects of trance is time distortion). “Hypnosis is a state of inner focus and absorption, combined with selective thinking,” explains Gallagher. Positive suggestion becomes kind of like a mantra (a thought that’s repeated to help you maintain and deepen your trance) that gets you closer to a specific goal, such as an easy delivery, a change of habit (like quitting smoking) or improved sleep.

When natural oxytocin, known as the hormone of love, labour and lactation, kicks in during childbirth, one of the side effects is profound trance, says Gallagher. “You may have observed labouring women in a trance-like state without any hypnosis training at all,” she says. “Oxytocin can zone them out, so, biologically, it makes sense that our bodies would use this to cope better with labour. But, while in this state, many women tell themselves ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘This is going to get way worse’ or ‘I can’t handle it.’ But that’s just bad hypnosis. If you were running a marathon and you kept repeating ‘I’ll never make it to the next tree,’ you’d be toast.” In her coaching, Gallagher takes women and their birth partners through positive affirmations: “You can do this. This one (contraction) is one less. You’re that much closer. Soon, you’ll be holding your baby in your arms.”

Many people confuse meditation with hypnosis. While they are very similar, meditation involves being aware of your thoughts—the goal is to let thoughts pass you by judgement-free. In hypnosis, your conscious mind could be chattering, but it remains in the background as you move deeper into the unconscious.

But how do you get there? While it’s a bit different for everyone, staring at a spot typically helps start the process. “You know when people daydream and kind of stare out the window and zone out?” she says. “That would be a light state.” From there, you would close your eyes and follow prompts from Gallagher (or your partner or even a recording). “Start at the number one, focus on each number, create the number, dissolve the number and go deeper with every number,” she explains. Instead of numbers, she might use the visual of a staircase, with every step taking you lower, or the rhythm of your breath. “The deeper the state of hypnosis, the more profound the perception of comfort,” she says.

Hypnosis may involve visualization (though it’s not essential—you can go into trance without it). I loved the idea of going to a special place in my mind, so I went straight to the south of France. I lived there years ago in university, in an apartment across the street from the Mediterranean. It had large balcony doors hung with lace curtains that would puff in and sail out with the salty beach air. I’d imagine my contractions in the same way: all blue sky and floaty curtains, following the gentle rhythm of the universe. Labour would be a fait accompli, and then I’d hold a tiny buttery croissant in my arms.

Why hypnosis?
Data surrounding hypnotherapy for childbirth is spotty, but researchers are starting to get a better understanding of how significant the mind-body connection is. One defining hypnosis study, published in the journal Science in 1990, may sound familiar: Hypnotized subjects were asked to place their hands in scalding hot water. They had been told it would hurt but also that it wouldn’t bother them, and scans confirmed less brain activity (in the region where pain is processed) once their hands were plunged in. Another study looked at hypnosis on burn victims, used specifically during dressing changes and wound cleanings, and found patients in a sleeplike state during this typically painful process. More recent research comes from Portugal, where patients with back pain were given a placebo and told that it contained no actual medication but that a positive attitude could help. After twice-daily doses for three weeks, the placebo group reported a 30 percent reduction in back pain, compared to nine and 16 percent drops for the control groups.

There is something to this. In 18 years that Gallagher has been teaching, she has found that hypnosis for pain management helps facilitate faster, more comfortable births, reduces the need for pain meds and other interventions and results in quicker recovery times and shorter hospital stays. “I would love to see better research,” says Gallagher. “I’ve seen hypnosis work for me and for countless women, so I know it works. But sometimes you just have to wait until the research catches up with what you know is possible.”

While natural oxytocin can nudge you into a bit of a trance, you’ll need some practice to keep you there. The 2013 Hypnosis Antenatal Training for Childbirth (HATCh) trial in South Australia—one of a handful of studies of hypnotherapy in childbirth—looked at how hypnosis affected the use of pain meds in labour. It found no difference at all between the group of women who used hypnosis and those who didn’t. But, Gallagher notes, the women in the HATCh study received training too late, after 34 weeks gestation, and many didn’t attend all three one-hour sessions or practise afterwards with the recordings. “The disappointing results make sense,” she says. “You can’t go to a massage therapist and ask him to fix the bad back you’ve had for years in a single session—it’s not going to happen. There are some people who are more predisposed to hypnosis for whom one session can work, but many others need practice. The more times you go in and out of trance, the deeper and more profound hypnosis can be.”

Gallagher recommends that women start experimenting with hypnosis during their second trimesters and sees most couples sign up for her weekend course between 20 and 28 weeks. She takes women in and out of progressively deeper trances, helps them and their support partners with visuals and vocabulary and sends them off with MP3 recordings to practise with and use in labour.

Practice is key. “I’ve seen hypnosis in childbirth work most successfully when people have great familiarity with the techniques and have used them a lot before labour,” says CJ Blennerhassett, a midwife with Kensington Midwives in Toronto. “It’s also important to have supportive people around you to keep you on track.”

Jennifer Dahan, mom of two kids aged three and six in Toronto, didn’t have any time to rehearse. She had wanted to do a full five-week course in her first pregnancy, but the timing didn’t work out, so she settled for a single private lesson instead. One week later, at 34 weeks, Dahan’s water broke in the underground parking garage at work. She was admitted to the hospital with her midwife. When her contractions started picking up, she sent her husband home to retrieve the iPod with a hypnosis recording. She put the headphones on and closed her eyes. “I felt the contractions but breathed through them,” she says. “I was in the zone the whole time, but I’m more nervous recalling it now.” Dahan’s midwife later said that she experienced a textbook case of hypnosis. Mystified nurses were sending one another into the room to observe as Dahan’s labour progressed quietly.

“I remember opening my eyes at one point and looking up and everyone was just standing around drinking coffee,” she says, laughing. “My husband was eating a muffin—it annoyed me! I thought, Where’s my muffin? But I closed my eyes and went back into it. I guess everyone in the room was calm because I was calm.” When it was time to push, the headphones came off. “I naturally left the trance and moved into the next phase,” says Dahan. “I felt pain, but it was manageable because I was relaxed enough. I didn’t feel like I needed an epidural at any point.”

Not everyone can go to the south of France
This is what I’d hoped for when I conjured those lace curtains. But trance didn’t come easily to me. Every Tuesday night, when my husband, Scott, and I settled into hypnobirthing class, I felt like I was the only one in the room who wasn’t getting it. I couldn’t quiet my mind and focus. During group sessions, I’d peek around at the other couples out of one squinted eye. I hung around after class to ask the instructor when it would work and how I would know. I’m sure I wasn’t her favourite student. And I certainly didn’t send a mass email to the class detailing our beautifully peaceful birth because that’s not what happened.

While in the throes of the 12th hour of back labour, those balcony doors were curtainless and swinging off their hinges. My contractions were crashing waves, rough and relentless, coming one after another. I kneeled on the hospital bed, my body thrown over the raised back as though I was clinging to a rock, gasping for breath. I remember being aware of my blue gown gaping at the back, my naked *ss exposed while I was struggling. I wasn’t in a trance; this was all way too real.

While Gallagher assures me that between 15 and 20 percent of people don’t do well with it, I still feel like I failed at hypnosis (and also my birth, which ended in a C-section) and that I was too scattered and anxious for it to work. “If I were to point to one thing that would make it really tough to do hypnosis, it would be back labour,” she says. “Back labour is brutal—it’s off the charts.”

Blennerhassett’s philosophy also makes me exhale. “Some people start to use it in labour and it just doesn’t work,” she says. “It’s like if you thought you would sit on a yoga ball or be in water. Sometimes it’s just not the way it goes, and that’s totally fine.” As long as hypnosis isn’t the only tool in your labour kit (you may also try a yoga ball, hydrotherapy, massage and pressure, she says), you can change course and respond to what your body needs in the moment. “It’s good to have coping strategies beforehand, but you want to be able to set things aside if they’re not working for you,” she says. “Pregnancy, labour and even parenting is a process of letting go of expectations and adapting in the moment.”

Hypnosis isn’t magic, but it is a trick, and it doesn’t have to be limited solely to childbirth, says Gallagher. She encourages women to use positive suggestion to facilitate breastfeeding (“My milk is flowing easily,” “My baby is drinking lots”) and to increase your confidence as a new parent. “I’ve also had clients use short recordings to help them sleep while baby is sleeping, which is hard to do in the middle of the day if your brain is going a mile a minute,” she says.

I’m forever working on letting go. Who knows, maybe I should give hypnosis another shot. Or maybe I should just book a real voyage.

Read more:
Guide to labour-pain management
How to cope during the transition phase of labour

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