Sometimes the universe is just amazing. It does things to you when you’re least expecting and bang you meet another human being who you feel is so well connected to you, it’s amazing that you haven’t crossed paths before. Cosmic. Well this is exactly what happened last November when I tweeted Hollie and I wanted to find out more about her Hypnobirthing classes. She lived and worked in the same area as myself, and some of my women had been raving about her and her classes. We met during my lunch break in a coffee shop and it was like meeting up with an old pal. We talked and talked and hardly drew breath, our mutual passion for positive births was palpable (not to mention fashion trends) and we swapped numbers with the promise of meeting up next time over a drink. The meeting was cut short as my pager went off calling me to a beautiful home water birth. Here Hollie tells us why all pregnant women should consider hypnobirthing and Paul McKenna is nothing to do with it………
So what is hypnobirthing? If I’m honest, I think the name puts a lot of people off. There is something about it that suggests I will probably be a mung-bean-eating, tie-dye-wearing pocket-watch wielder. In fact, I’m just a normal mum to one, with a background in graphic design who has stumbled across something wonderful and wants to share it. And that something wonderful happens to be hypnobirthing – an entirely logical antenatal eduction programme based on physiology – how the body works. There is nothing strange about it – no voodoo involved – it is simply understanding how our birthing muscles are designed to function and moreover, how they have become impaired by fear and unfounded expectation.
I came across hypnobirthing when I was pregnant with my son. It’s fair to say I was terrified at the prospect of giving birth. I used to type “horrific birth videos” into YouTube, watch them, and then think “okay, that woman survived, that means I have a good chance of surviving too.” I don’t even think I seriously entertained the idea of giving birth until I was at least 6 months pregnant. I then remember having a conversation with a friend who had just given birth, and that conversation changed my life. I asked her how the birth was, bracing myself for the standard unfolding of traumatic events. She said “it was the most romantic, peaceful experience of my life”. I assumed she was being sarcastic, but in fact she went on to tell me what a calm and intimate experience it had been as she beamed with happiness and pride. Hypnobirthing was apparently the answer, and so with a good amount of curiosity and apprehension, I booked us onto a course.
The course, which ran over two weekends, totally changed the way I viewed birth. I realised that all of my visions of birth were based on other people’s experiences. I was conditioned to believe birth would be awful, with very little understanding of how the physical process of birth even worked. Both my husband and I felt completely enlightened and empowered by what we learnt, by the hypnobirth videos we watched, and it helped us to bond enormously. This was a team effort. We could do this and enjoy it. In the space of two weeks, I’d gone from burying my head in the sand to being excited about going into labour. I think a lot of people around me thought I was slightly off my rocker. How could I possibly be looking forward to this? But I was. My husband and I practiced the techniques daily, and the three of us grew closer all the time. All of this practice paid off entirely when my son decided it was time to make an appearance, and I can honestly say that the journey of his birth was the most rewarding, joyful and life-affirming thing I have ever experienced. At no point was I scared or in unbearable pain. I have never felt so close to another human being as I did with my husband through labour, and my son’s calm temperament, from day one, is something I definitely put down to hypnobirthing.
Having had this experience, I absolutely knew I had to share this with other women. It made me sad to hear other women talk so disparately of their births, knowing how fulfilling and joyous it could be. I made the decision to train to become a hypnobirthing teacher, and had qualified by the time of my son’s first birthday. I launched London Hypnobirthing two years ago and have been working with mums and their birth companions ever since. I cannot think of a job I’d rather be doing. I love my work and I am proud to be making a difference to the way we approach birth in this country.
So what kind of things does hypnobirthing embody? I always like to begin by acknowledging couple’s concerns about birth, or even about the course. We introduce ourselves and it’s absolutely fine for dads to say “I’m here because my wife told me to come, and I have no idea what this is all about”. A lot of mums say “I’m not sure if I believe in this, but if there’s a chance it can help then I guess it’s worth a try”. Also fine. What I do ask is that couples approach the course with an open mind. I am offering them knowledge, understanding and tools for a better birth, not promising them a “normal” one, whatever that may be. It is their responsibility to take what I offer and practice it, and also to let go of their limiting thoughts around birth. It’s kind of like learning a foreign language – it’s all very well buying a CD, but if you practice speaking it you’ll of course progress so much more.
We talk about where our fear of childbirth comes from and how this fear affects the way our muscles work. We ask if birth has always been this way. We explore the roles of adrenalin and endorphins – and the significant part they play in the birthing body. We look at how programming the mind with certain messages will trigger corresponding chemical reactions in the body – think of placebos, blushing, salivating – and relate this to how we can train our bodies to work in labour. Over the four week course, we learn lots of practical tools to use during labour, a gentle endorphin-inducing massage, breathing and visualisation techniques, and practice the art of self-hypnosis in different forms, which allows the mind and body to work harmoniously, just as nature has designed it to.
There’s a lot we can draw from nature – looking at how animals birth their babies – most often at night, when it’s dark and they feel quiet and safe. It’s no surprise then that most women go into labour at night, and that women often labour so well at home only for things to stall when they make the transition to a bright and noisy hospital where there are lots of strangers buzzing around. It’s so important to get the birth environment right, and this is where dads or birth companions have a huge role to play. I remember during my labour my husband simply whispering “you’re completely safe”, and it was like the warmest embrace I’d ever had. It’s sad when dads feel helpless, or merely a bystander in bringing their baby into the world, and I really encourage couples to embrace this as a total team effort. Your birth companion is there to create a safe space and protect it, to advocate for you and your baby, and to offer gentle encouragement and security – helping to maintain mum’s relaxed state so that she can turn within.
Another important element of hypnobirthing is gaining the confidence to ask questions and ensuring you have the best birth experience for you. Birth is such a personal journey and should be treated as such, wherever and however you choose to birth. I strongly believe that every woman should be entitled to the same level of care and respect during pregnancy, and understanding birth enables parents to reach decisions from a place of knowledge. There is no right or wrong – if it feels right for you, it probably is. Unfortunately we live in a society where we are all too often dictated to by authority, and scared or even embarrassed to question it. Expectant parents should be vary wary when they hear the words “not allowed to”, or “have to” – remember that this is yourbody and your baby. Of course it’s important to listen to medical opinions, but make sure you take the time to tune into your own instincts, to ask questions, and to make decisions based on the interest of you and your baby, rather than handing over such a precious experience because it feels like the only option. So many women in the UK for instance are needlessly induced because they are “late”. Or actually not late as it happens, with recent research highlighting that a woman’s due time can be anywhere between 37 and 42 weeks. To expect all babies to pop out bang on 40 weeks is like expecting 100 people to walk a mile in exactly the same amount of time. Nature doesn’t work like that, and I encourage the parents I work with to respect that their baby knows when and where is the right time to be born.
Another issue that our society has a lot to answer for is the pressure put on women, and especially mothers. From the moment you’re pregnant you will start facing outside advice or opinions on doing things a certain way. From people you don’t even know. Women are judged if they have pain relief, or are “taking the easy route” if they’ve had a caesarian (i.e. major abdominal surgery). You’re letting your baby down if you don’t breastfeed, because formula is apparently poison, and if you cuddle your baby too much you’re sewing the seed for a high-maintenance adult. Hypnobirthing is about stepping away from this outside pressure and doing what’s right for you and your baby. It’s about challenging these social judgements and about making decisions based on the knowledge you have gained, and ultimately what feels right. Women should never be made to feel like failures, and if one woman feels that way, it’s society that’s failing.
Hypnobirthing is also not about prescriptive birthing, we are not anti-medicine (we are lucky to live in a country where assistance is readily available if required), we don’t say you have to home birth, you’re not required to be quiet, we’re just there to open up the way we enter the birthing process. We’re there to support and encourage women to believe they are designed to give birth naturally, a belief that society is sadly losing sight of. Ultimately hypnobirthing is looking at how fear affects labour and addressing it. It’s about programming our mind to accept the journey of birth and make way for it. So many women don’t get the birth they want because they are limited by fear. For example, despite most first time mums going over their EDD with their first babies, 66% of London Hypnobirthing first time mums have had their babies on or before their EDD. There’s so much to be said for being emotionally ready for the physical journey to begin – a clear reflection of how the mind and body work together.
So, I hope this has been able to dispel some of the rumours you may have heard about hypnobirthing.
Hollie Stroud MHbA