Hypnobirthing, old skill/new fad?

By Sian Hannagan, Jo Easton
Nov 2014

Hypnobirthing is a relatively recent innovation in the birth community. At core it is a commercialised system for birthing that enables very deep relaxation through the birth process. The premise is that women who reach a very deep state of relaxation have uterine contractions that are effective and pain free. They birth well. A lot of hypnobirthing is about re-framing our perceptions of birth and removing fear from the equation, from changing a lot of the negatively charged language around birth to untangling the deeply set fears of birth that are reinforced by our society.

Image supplied by Zena Nicholls

The question is, does hypnobirthing offer something new and valuable to birthing women or is it just a re-frame and commodification of something we have already known for hundreds of years?

For many people, hypnobirthing is actually just a fancy name for what women have been able to do for centuries, at its simplest level it is deep relaxation and visualisation free from fear. The inspiration for hypnobirthing first came from a book written by Grantly Dick Read called ‘Childbirth Without Fear,’ in this book he discussed how he witnessed a peasant woman give birth uninterrupted. He observed that she didn’t require intervention and surmised this was because she was not afraid. This was a revelation for him as most birth in his era was defined by the suffering and travails of women. The ultimate punishment for a woman’s sin. This accepting and physiological approach to birth is not something new or unique to this one woman. We have thousands of years of human existence on our side, proving that birth is an effective and trusted process. Observably, many women ‘hypnobirth’ during birth as part of their body’s natural labour coping mechanism. So why do we need hypnobirthing at all?

According to Marie Mongan the originator of Hypnobirthing, the problem arises because women are pre-programmed to fear birth, our current birthing environment does not facilitate relaxation. Industrialised birth can lead to unnecessary or unwanted interventions, it is not necessarily true that a technological birth is the best birth. When we observe mammals give birth in the natural world, they often find a dark quiet place where they will not be interrupted, and they allow their body to do the work. Human physiology is geared for the same thing, we have a flow of hormones that allow women to birth easily, this flow of hormones is released more freely when we are deeply relaxed and comfortable. This is because the physiological process of birthing is primarily involuntary. It is a primal process managed by autonomic system in the brain. Higher thought interferes with the primal reflexes associated with giving birth. Yet time and time again, modern women have births that do not progress and need intervention or that are traumatic. With all of this research on birth and additional technology our rate of intervention is climbing, not reducing.

 Our neocortex is originally a tool that serves the old brain structures as a means of supporting our survival instinct. The point is that its activity tends to control more primitive brain structures and to inhibit the birth process (and any sort of sexual experience as well).                                                                           

Michel Odent, Primal Birth

The reality is that in our highly intellectualised birth culture, we bypass the physiological birth process in an attempt to control outcomes, often this is not even initiated by mothers but by a birth industry that financially benefits when women cannot birth without assistance. We also have an enormously powerful media that brainwash women with scare stories and TV shows, painting birth as a hysterical  activity best managed by birth professionals and not the mother herself. The overwhelming messages that come from shows such as ‘One Born Every Minute’ are that mothers are not the authors of their own birth and that women are essentially flawed when it comes to having babies.

In a modern world, how do we overcome these incredibly powerful messages that disempower birthing mothers. Arguably HypnoBirthing fills an important space where the herstory of womanly birth skills has been curtailed. Without women teaching women how to birth there is no understanding that women can and do birth in peace on a regular basis. The truth is that women can birth well, peacefully, or even in ecstasy, our bodies have been designed to do this. Hypnobirthing isn’t the only path there either, proponents for orgasmic or ecstatic birth share similar but not identical messages when it comes to birthing in power. But at core, the concept is to respect birthing women and honour the physiological processes.

Melissa didn’t use hypnobirthing for her water Home Birth, but still found her moment of birth powerful and ecstatic. Image provided by Melissa.

One misconception about hypnobirthing is that it is akin to the stage shows where someone ‘puts you under’ and you are in their control. However, the hypnosis in hypnobirthing is actually about enabling women to perform ‘self-hypnosis.’ It gives them tools to tap into the deep subconscious allowing them to bypass the intellectual neocortex and tap into the more primal part of the brain – which is actually the part we need to be in charge of the birth process.

While hypnobirthing may be seen as an attempt at cashing in on insecure first time parents, many people have found the structured learning has given them practical tools to understand and challenge their fears while learning the fundamentals of birthing and how to practically put these techniques into use. It offers peace of mind and for some couples, a way of healing and bonding. “As our guess date drew nearer, I felt more connected with our baby and the impending birth, I felt so much more prepared than I had for my first birth. My husband was a changed person, he had been anxious about birth and had even asked to not be there. After classes ended, he was confident and so calm.”

 Jo Easton, hypnobirthing practitioner offers her thoughts on the value of hypnobirthing.

Women have been birthing effectively since the beginning of time, otherwise as a species we would not have survived. However, in recent times, trust in our body’s instinctive ability to birth has been eroded. Horror birth stories depicted in novels, movies, marketing campaigns and from other Mothers’ have all played their part.

If we take a step back and look at how a baby comes into being. From meeting a mate, to conception; pregnancy to birthing; to breastfeeding and parenting. It is illogical to think that the birthing part of the process is somehow flawed and doesn’t work properly. Yet, for many women there is a sense of unpreparedness around birthing, they cannot conceptualise how their huge bump of a belly is going to get out through their vagina, and this creates doubt and fear around birthing.

“When you change the way you view birth, the way you birth will change” – Marie Mongan

Dr Grantly Dick-Reed, an English Obstetrician in the 1920’s observed that when women birthed without fear or expectation of pain, they birthed quietly and gently and, in many cases, reported not feeling any pain.

When the birthing Mum is totally relaxed, the brain releases relaxing hormones to facilitate the muscles of the uterus to work efficiently and the cervix to open easily. Endorphins are also released that have an effect 200 times stronger than morphine.

If we are frightened or feel tension, our brain interprets this as not feeling safe and the ‘fight or flight response’ takes over. The brain releases stress hormones and adrenaline. Oxygenated blood is redirected away from the uterus to our heart, lungs, and limbs to enable us to fight or run. Birthing slows or stops until we feel safe again. He termed this phenomenon as the Fear-Tension-Pain syndrome (FTP) in his book Birthing Without fear. Interestingly, FTP in medical terminology means Failure to Proceed and this is when interventions become almost inevitable.

When we are fearful or stressed birth takes place within the sympathetic nervous system, which actually inhibits a lot of essential birth processes. A deeply relaxed mother with birth within the parasympathetic nervous system that facilitates the oxytocin flow and physiological birth.

During HypnoBirthing classes, parents-to-be gain a good understanding of how Mum’s body is working towards birthing. How, when Mum is relaxed, the muscles of the uterus work in perfect harmony to open the cervix and move the baby down. How these muscles are designed to never fatigue. To compliment this knowledge a range of simple techniques are taught so that Mum and Dad / Birthing Companion can facilitate birthing rather than hinder it.

 These techniques include:

 Deep relaxation – Mum becomes adept at falling into a deeply relaxed state quickly and easily, while remaining alert and present.

 Visualisations – Picturing and imagining the birth playing out in the best way possible from early in the pregnancy to guided imagery for Mums to use while birthing. Images may include visualising the cervix opening like a flower or picturing baby moving freely and easily down the birth path.

 Affirmations – replacing any negative language or beliefs with positive and empowering statements, ‘My baby is the perfect size for my birthing body,’ ‘My baby is in the optimal position for descent and birthing.’

Releasing fears – Couples are guided through relaxation scripts specifically crafted to remove any negative or limiting associations with birth that may affect their birthing outcome. This is particularly poignant for anxious Mums-to-be and those with unresolved issues around previous births.

 Sharing – HypnoBirthing® provides opportunities and techniques for Fathers and birth companions to play an integral role in supporting the birthing Mum. It also provides them with the reassurance they need to be comfortable doing nothing if that is what the birthing mum wants.

By practicing these few key techniques, they will become second nature and mothers can call upon them as and when needed to birth easily and without intervention.

Leanne and Pieter, came to classes because they wanted their three year old daughter, Eireann, to be present at the birth and so wanted it to be as calm and serene as possible. Leanne birthed her baby boy, Ruan, in the spa pool in her garden as she planned. She was with Pieter and holding hands with Eireann. What a beautiful way to welcome a baby into the world. She said that “HypnoBirthing allowed (her) to listen to (her) body and follow where it needed to go.”

Image gifted for use by Cindy Curtain. Photographer Rachael Brown

The HypnoBirthing Course

The HypnoBirthing® course is spread over five classes of two and a half hours each. Classes are small with a maximum of five or six couples.

There is a positive focus on proactively planning and preparing for beautiful and gentle births. Harsh language associated with birthing is changed, ‘contractions’ become surges, ‘pain’ becomes pressure and tightening. Relaxation techniques are learned and practised as well as the breathing techniques and visualisations.

There are currently 17 practitioners offering HypnoBirthing classes across New Zealand and their contact details can be found in the Practitioner Directory on www.Hypnobirthing.com. Most Practitioners have websites detailing class dates and locations. They are wonderful people, passionate about sharing the HypnoBirthing® philosophy so that more women can experience an easier and more comfortable birth.

A personal experience.

Isabell and Guillame came to classes as part of their preparation for a comfortable home birth. Isabell had experienced a traumatic first birth eighteen years previously. Her first birth had resulted in drugs, an emergency c-section and other interventions that lead to her being separated from her baby for ten days after the birth. This trauma, Isabell believes, lead to secondary infertility. They finally became pregnant through IVF. Being keen kite-surfers, they chose to call the contractions or surges, ‘waves.’  After the beautiful home waterbirth of a daughter, Ocean, Isabell said,

 “People ask how I did it without any drugs and I say, I knew what was coming, I knew what my body was doing, I knew that my baby was in the optimal position, I trusted what my body was doing. I took myself to my special place – a kitchen that smelled of lemon and pancakes. Guillame used the techniques he had learned to prompt me back into relaxation when he saw I needed it. I visualised a rose opening and I could feel her coming down. She kicked me, she kicked herself out. I started to breathe her down, but my body did everything automatically. I couldn’t have done anything to prevent it, my body just knew what to do. My waters released at crowning just like a wave. I wanted to be the first person to touch her and so I asked the midwife to standby and Guillame to wait. I touched her head, everything was numb down there from the endorphins. Guillame received her. She had big open blue eyes, he placed her on my belly, and she crawled to my breast. My Healing baby, my rainbow baby- the most amazing connection, a heartfelt, overwhelming, warm, mothering feeling that I didn’t get with my first birth.”

HypnoBirthing Statistics and Facts

Studies have also shown that for first time mothers, using hypnosis and relaxation in the first stage of labour averages about three hours shorter than mothers not using the techniques. The second stage of labour (birthing) is reduced by almost half. (Jenkins, M.W., & Pritchard, M.H. (1993). Hypnosis: Practical applications and theoretical considerations in normal labour. British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology).

Statistics from the US where the programme was founded show that 9.5% of HypnoBirthing® mothers chose to birth in the comfort of their homes. The national average is less than 1%.

6% of HypnoBirthing® mothers chose to birth in freestanding birth centres. The national average is less than 1%.

And only 23% of HypnoBirthing® mothers birthing vaginally had epidural anaesthesia, compared to the national average of 71%.

Over 90% of the 500 respondents reported that Hypnobirthing benefitted their confidence in their ability to birth; making good decisions for birthing; and in their understanding of their birthing options. (HypnoBirthing® Outcomes USA 2005-2010, HypnoBirthing® Institute, www.hypnobirthing.com).

The HypnoBirthing® techniques can be used whatever path the birthing takes. Many women who have needed intervention for medical reasons have praised HypnoBirthing® for keeping them calm and relaxed. One mother noted that while being very relaxed, she was alert and could take in every word the Obstetrician was saying. She was able to ask questions and give her informed consent to the c-section. She credited the ability to be involved in making decisions with her acceptance of the birthing outcome, her speedy recovery and quickly established breastfeeding relationship.

“We believe that every woman has within her the power to call upon her natural instincts to bring about the best possible birthing for her baby and herself” – Marie Mongan


Jo is a HypnoBirthing practitioner and teaches classes in the South Auckland and franklin area.

HypnoBirthing® is a complete Childbirth Education class, designed by Marie Mongan, to remind mothers of the simplicity of natural birth. HypnoBirthing® is designed to teach women to trust in Nature’s way of birth and to relax and let their bodies do what is needed.