What is it and does it actually work?

To calm her nerves before giving birth, Madelaine Golec, a physiotherapist in Mississauga, Ont., signed up for hypnobirthing classes. She wanted to gain the confidence to handle whatever came her way during labour.

By employing relaxation techniques and offering a view of childbirth that doesn’t focus on pain and suffering, hypnobirthing aims to ease fear and anxiety during the birthing process and reduce overall pain.

“Having information about labour and how the body is designed to birth gave me confidence,” says Golec. “Seeing examples of women giving birth in a calm and beautiful way made it possible in my mind that I could have it too.”

What is hypnobirthing? 

The term HypnoBirthing was coined in the 1989 book HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method by hypnotherapist Marie Mongan. She was influenced by the work of Dr. Grantly Dick-Read, the British obstetrician who popularized the phrase “natural childbirth” in the 1940s. In his book, Childbirth without Fear, Dick-Read posited that fear was a factor in the experience of pain during childbirth. After having anesthetics forced on her during her first two births in the ’50s, Mongan delivered her third and fourth children without medication, and when her daughter was pregnant she started offering classes so that other couples who were so inclined could have similar experiences by using her techniques to manage their fear and anxiety. 

(For reference, when we say HypnoBirthing with capital letters we’re referring to Marie Mongan’s trademarked system and classes, vs the generic lowercase version ‘hypnobirthing’.)

Hypnobirthing techniques don’t take you into a true hypnotic state. They are meant to promote deep relaxation to dissociate from pain. It’s essentially pregnancy meditation, with a focus on mind over matter—for example, seeing contractions, which are referred to as “surges and waves,” as a way to get closer to birthing a baby rather than an experience of suffering. It’s a way to change your mindset and learn that your body isn’t feeling pain and suffering, but is creating the miracle of birth.

“HypnoBirthing goes beyond the categorization of birth (stages, dilation, etc.), which primarily focuses on outcome,” says Liliana Custodio, a social worker who teaches HypnoBirthing classes across Ontario. “Instead the focus is on embracing the mysterious parts of birth with confidence, empowerment and awareness.” 

Custodio explains that the techniques guide women to tap into their own power, reclaim their voice and break free from the birth culture pressures of society. This can help them birth their babies without fear and have a positive birth experience. 

How does it work?

The idea behind hypnobirthing is that learning to control your thoughts can help control pain. Since pain is highly subjective, people may experience less pain when they interpret the pain as positive or productive. 

When we feel scared or anxious, the body naturally produces the hormone adrenaline. This raises the heart rate and blood pressure, and oxygen gets diverted to our essential organs. It’s survival mode. The problem is that adrenaline and fear also slow down labour by inhibiting oxytocin, the hormone that helps with contractions. Adrenalin makes muscles tighten and makes us feel more pain. Oxytocin allows muscles to relax and decreases the awareness of pain. 

“The theory is that hypnosis can alter the higher centers of the central nervous system to relieve pain,” says Dr. Rebecca Dekker,  PhD, RN, founder of Evidence Based Birth, who successfully used hypnobirthing for her second and third labours.

This process hasn’t been well-studied, so it’s more of a working theory than proven fact. But the idea of the technique is to inhibit adrenaline and fear, so you feel relaxed and release more oxytocin. 

Taking hypnobirthing classes and knowing what to expect during labour may help reduce fear and anxiety about giving birth. For some, that knowledge may be all that’s needed to feel calmer and more relaxed. 

Hypnobirthing techniques 

Hypnobirthing uses relaxation techniques, including positive affirmations, meditation, visualizations and guided thought. These help control the body and mind, taking the focus away from the pain. There are also tips to help regulate breathing. 

Some programs offer recordings of verbal affirmations for participants to listen to, which may help with relaxation and visualization. They are encouraged to practice these techniques for a few months before their due date.  

Do you need to take classes? 

Hypnobirthing isn’t right for everyone, and it’s certainly not a requirement for childbirth. Learning the techniques can be costly and time-consuming, and may not fit with the birth plan of some pregnancies. That’s okay! 

If you are interested, the “Mongan method” is taught in 2.5-hour classes over a period of five weeks. Custodio says the cost ranges from $320-$450 and includes a textbook and a set of guided relaxation recordings. Other courses or private hypnotists are also available, and are in the same general price range. Since the classes are optional, they are not covered by insurance. Parents-to-be can also learn the basics of hypnobirthing through books, YouTube videos or podcasts.

No matter which method you choose, give yourself ample time to learn and practice the techniques. Dekker suggests that hypnobirthing classes can help reduce the overall use of pain medication during labour, especially when training sessions begin in the first or second trimester of pregnancy. “The earlier the better,” she says.

What are the benefits of hypnobirthing?

Those who lean towards a holistic pregnancy or hope for a natural birth may find hypnobirthing in line with their beliefs. A study out of Australia found that people using this technique were also more likely to have consulted with an acupuncturist or naturopath, attended yoga or meditation classes during pregnancy, and use herbal medicines, aromatherapy oils, homoeopathy, herbal teas or flower essences.

But anyone can try it, as long as they have an open mind. Custodio says that some of the benefits of HypnoBirthing are the ability to intentionally surrender to the unfolding experience of birth with ease and confidence rather than fear, and to feel empowered, informed, confident and connected to the birth process, whether medicated or not.

Other reported benefits include a less painful delivery, swifter movement through stage one of labour, unmedicated birth, a calmer experience where the labouring parent is more alert and awake, and even a calmer newborn.

What are the risks and criticisms of hypnobirthing?

Hypnobirthing is not well-supported by studies, and it may not be effective for everyone. It’s important to think of it as one tool in a birthing toolboxOne criticism of hypnobirthing is that it’s laser-focused on the power of thought, and doesn’t prepare you with a plan B in case hypnobirthing techniques don’t work during labour. While there is power in positive thinking, it doesn’t always exceed the pain of childbirth. 

If you’re taking a hypnobirthing class, you may also want to take classes that explain possible medical interventions and pain management options so you’re prepared for different outcomes and understand your options.   

Does it actually work? 

Can hypnobirthing classes guide you towards a pain-free birth? The science on the efficacy of the technique is not very thorough. While some studies say it works, other studies don’t support it.

In a 2016 meta-analysis of nine studies that looked at hypnobirthing, researchers found that there was no clear differences between women who practiced hypnobirthing and those in the control groups for:

  •         The number of normal deliveries
  •         The overall satisfaction with the chosen method of pain relief
  •         The overall sense of coping with labour
  •         Use of epidurals during labour

The researchers noted that the hypnobirthing group used less pain medication during labour (excluding epidurals), so pain was mitigated slightly. The researchers concluded that more high-quality research is needed, since too few studies have been conducted on this topic.

Since that meta-analysis, a study conducted in 2022 found that people practicing hypnobirthing had lower rates of birth intervention (such as forceps), shorter delivery periods, and higher rates of vaginal delivery. 

“Only a small number of studies have assessed the use of hypnotherapy for labour and childbirth,” says Dekker, who explains that the evidence from these studies is low quality and complicated by the fact that participants may have received different training in hypnobirthing, which can’t be compared equally. 

“Furthermore, the participants in these studies gave birth in hospital settings and experienced many interruptions during labour, which can interfere with hypnosis,” says Dekker. 

Hypnobirthing outcomes

Golec ended up taking in-person classes where she heard lectures, practiced mindfulness techniques and watched videos of women in labour using hypnobirthing methods. She says it was very helpful as she wanted an unmedicated birth.

“While I did not achieve hypnotic states during labour, I kept visualizing the women in the videos and tried to focus my breathing so that I could work through the contractions,” says Golec.

In the end, Golec gave birth to her daughter without an epidural or any other pain medication, and no medical interventions were needed.

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