By Melinda Fontaine
Peaceful labor? Comfortable delivery? Calm childbirth? Do these sound like oxymorons? It’s true!
Jane was a young woman who saw a segment on TV about HypnoBirthing. She saw pregnant women who looked like they were concentrating really hard on an abdominal workout or a challenging algebra equation. Then a baby would pop out. There was no screaming, no squeezing someone’s hand, no cursing or bargaining with a god-figure. Nothing at all like the births she saw in movies. This image stuck with her. Years later she became pregnant with her first child, and she hoped for a labor like she saw in the HypnoBirthing segment. Jane did not usually turn to alternative and complementary medicine. She was a scientist with an analytical mind, married to another scientist, and they were accustomed to western medicine. However, HypnoBirthing sounded like it could complement western medicine very well. After all, if it didn’t work out, western medicine had a number of options for pain relief during delivery as well.
So Jane went online and signed up for a HypnoBirthing class at her local birth center. She and her partner went to a series of classes and learned “childbirth is a normal, natural and healthy function for women.”1 They learned the secrets of hypnobirthing. (They are not really secrets. I’ll talk more about them below). Jane and her partner went home to digest all the information. They read a book, listened to the recorded meditation, and practiced what they learned in the classes.
One Sunday night, she started having contractions very intermittently. Jane had learned so much about how labor progresses and what to expect that she was not afraid at all. In fact, she went back to sleep after each contraction until it was time to get up in the morning. She followed her plan; she listened to her relaxation recordings, lied on her side, ate a snack, and waited for the time to go to the hospital. When her contractions were sufficiently close together, she went to the hospital. When she arrived, she appeared to the staff to be very calm, rested, and comfortable. They thought, “Surely this woman is not in the throes of labor; she must be just beginning”. After a quick exam, Jane was told that her cervix was fully effaced and dilated (thin and open). There was no screaming and very little discomfort. Two hours later, Jane was holding her baby, and she felt like she was on top of the world.
What are the secrets of HypnoBirthing?
HypnoBirthing teaches the physiology of birth, the power of the mind, releasing fear, breathing, relaxation, visualization, deepening, nutrition, positioning, and so much more. The main theme seems to be that birth is a natural process. The body knows what to do; that is why your uterus contracts without you telling it to. Your body works with you throughout pregnancy, delivery, and postpartum. Do you remember hearing how the pregnancy hormone relaxin makes a woman’s body more flexible? This is preparing the body to stretch and make room to push a baby out. So your body has been working for you the whole time. If we look to other mammals, women in less developed parts of the world, or women in history, their birthing experience is very calm. In her book, Marie Mongan, M.Ed., M.Hy. tells the story of asking a woman to tell her about birthing in her village in Africa. The woman answered “What is there to tell? The women have their babies.” The women go about their day as usual. When they feel the baby move down, they lean against a wall, squat down and receive their own baby. Neither Hippocrates nor Aristotle wrote of pain in their notes on normal uncomplicated births.¹ What has happened in western medicine? Why does birth have to be so scary? Why is it viewed as a medical procedure? Doctors and nurses can be excellent support staff to a birthing mother (provided their values and goals align with the mothers’). They are also responsible for saving moms and babies when they are in trouble, so I don’t want to devalue them at all. However, wouldn’t birth be so much more enjoyable if there was no fear, if we could trust that the body knows what to do, and if we understood the process enough to be able to let go of our anxieties? With no fear, there is no pain. (We know pain is just a warning of perceived threat from the brain because of this masterpiece from Britt) These are the secrets of HypnoBirthing.
How did birth become so fearful and medicalized?
Once upon a time, childbirth was viewed as a natural, beautiful miracle that brought life into this world. Then, we humans messed that up, too. Around the end of the second century AD, men began to feel women were inferior. St. Clement of Alexandria announced, “Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman.”¹ Midwifery disappeared and doctors were legally not permitted to attend to a birthing woman. Women were isolated during pregnancy and childbirth because pregnancy was viewed as the result of a carnal sin. “The Curse of Eve” was written into the Bible explaining why women must experience pain in childbirth. I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m going to say this is when fear and pain entered into the birthing experience… Fast forward to the 1800s; Queen Victoria demanded she be given chloroform, so her royal body did not have to feel the pain of childbirth. Thus, childbirth became a medical procedure. Births occurred in hospitals. Fathers were not needed at the bedside. Women were not in control of their own bodies, and so on and so forth. Today’s view of birth is a result of our combined experiences as a species. What are your beliefs about birth? What are your expectations?
How can a pelvic physical therapist support the efforts of HypnoBirthing?
Physical therapists also believe that birth is a natural process and that the body helps you before, during, and after birth. I see many pregnant women, and address their concerns to help alleviate fear and thus pain. For example, I may teach a woman and her partner some pain relieving massage techniques or a gentle stretch to use if she feels pain. I can review what positions might be most comfortable for someone with her given impairments, and I can even teach women how to push effectively, so they feel prepared and confident for vaginal delivery. See this blog for how physical therapists can help pain management. After delivery, the body naturally recovers and prepares for the next stage of life (caring for baby, breastfeeding, etc.). Just as we wouldn’t expect to run a marathon without some residual soreness, many women come out of childbirth with some temporary discomfort or concerns about changes that have taken place in their bodies. A physical therapist can help the body recover and function optimally. Some things I address postpartum include tailbone pain, stress urinary incontinence, and diastasis recti (separation of the abdominal muscles). Click for more about postpartum care and postpartum pelvic pain.
Birth can be peaceful and calm with the proper knowledge, tools, and support.
- Mongan M. HypnoBirthing: the Mongan method. Deerfield Beach:Health Communications Inc; 2005