Donders Wonders Blog

Hypnobirthing: Hype or hope?

This post is also available in Dutch.

You’re pregnant! No matter how much you look forward to your baby’s arrival, the birth scares you to death. Hypnobirthing is a popular new technique to deal with the pain of labour. Is it a temporary hype or does it really provide hope for future mothers? I tried it myself.

What is hypnobirthing?

It might sound like hypnobirthing is one of those practices where you look at a swinging pendulum, are brought under hypnosis, and suddenly act like a chicken. In that regard, the name is misleading. 
Hypnobirthing is a set of mental relaxation techniques, often taught in a course, that you learn together with your partner to prepare for labour. These techniques focus on creating a safe and calm environment where you can relax and surrender to a natural, and thus optimal, birthing process.

How would hypnobirthing help?

Hypnobirthing acts on the fact that fear can aggravate the experience of pain via stress, as is the case in labour. This is a vicious cycle, as fear leads to stress, stress leads to more pain and more pain leads to more fear!
Fear and stress will cause you, amongst other things, to produce more catecholamines, the so-called fight-or-flight hormones, and this hinders the production of oxytocin and endorphins. Both oxytocin and endorphins have a pain-reducing function and play an important part in the birth.
The way hypnobirthing acts on this process is by breaking the vicious cycle of fear, stress and pain.

Fear is reduced by:

  1. identification:What scares and worries you?
  2. affirmation: Tell yourself in a positive way that everything will be okay.
  3. information: Educate yourself on the different stages of labour and what you might experience.

Stress is reduced by:

  1. relaxation: via various relaxation exercises
  2. visualisations:of a smooth birth
  3. meditation: combination of relaxation and visualisation that can bring you into a state of deep relaxation

The partner plays a supportive role in this process.

Automation

An essential part of a hypnobirthing course is that you practice the aforementioned components often (almost daily!) The idea is that you can, in time, enter a relaxed state nearly automatically. 

You bring yourself under hypnosis—hence the name ‘hypnobirthing’.

What has science to say about it?

The question is, of course, does this actually work? The claims made by various hypnobirthing courses are huge; some even argue that you won’t feel any pain at all. But the scientific studies on which these statements are based are often old and small in scale. There is, however, proper evidence that hypnosisaids in pain relief in othertypes of acute pain (e.g., during a medical operation or a burn).

reviewof studies on this topic points out that hypnosis-based therapies could in fact soothe birthing pain, but this review also indicates that too little qualitative research has been done in this field. What we need are randomised studies; people are appointed randomly to either a group that receives hypnobirthing training or a group that receives an alternative treatment. If no such study is performed, any effect found can be attributed to a difference between people that voluntarily choosehypnobirthing and people that choose an alternative. One such randomised study found that hypnobirthing could in factreduce anxiety.

What do I say about it?

In preparation of the birth of my second child I took part in a hypnobirthing course. When I was expecting my first son, labour was unexpectedly induced two weeks before the due date. This time around, I wanted to be better prepared. In the end, my son was born two weeks after the due date, and again, after labour was induced. The birthing process was remarkably similar to the first and definitely not easier or less painful. Both times, I had an epidural. Nevertheless, hypnobirthing did help me. The relaxation in the weeks before the birth were extremely comfortable. During labour, I was indeed able to better relax and I experienced more control, allowing me to make choices more consciously. In the meantime, I was more capable of surrendering to what was out of my control. In the end, I experienced this birth more positively. However, I cannot exclude the possibility that this is just due to the fact that it was my second time around, making me better prepared.

In conclusion, hypnobirthing is a promising alternative for the more common prenatal courses where you learn to be relaxed so that the pain feels less intense. Science isn’t really sure whether that last part is actually true and better research is needed. What many researchers do agree upon and what my experience supports, is that hypnobirthing helps the mother to be more resilient and aids in experiencing the birth more positively.

Original language: Dutch

Author: Floortje Bouwkamp
Buddy: Felix Klaassen
Editor: Jil Naaijen
Translator: Wessel Hieselaar
Editor translation: Christienne Gonzales Damatac

Credits: image courtesy of author, photographer:Lieke van Mil

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