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Hypnobirthing: Deep Breaths a Good Substitute for an Epidural?

By John Cave Osborne |

Good. Now imagine you're in a serene environment, wading in knee-water that is pleasantly warm and calm as you bask in soft, midnight blue light.

At almost 19 weeks, Caroline is not even halfway done with this pregnancy. So it’s a little early yet to be focusing on the actual birth, itself. But given that she had a C-section to deliver the triplets, it’s hard not to think about what’s to come. And while I’m certain I’ll eventually write a “to VBAC or not to VBAC” post, this is not it. This post, instead, is going to assume that Caroline does opt for a VBAC, thus leaving her with yet another question: Is Hypnobirthing a good alternative to epidurals and other painkillers during a vaginal child birth?

For that’s the question I was left with after reading an interesting article just a few minutes ago.

The Telegraph reported that Britain’s National Health Service is launching an 18-month Hypnobirthing study in an effort to cut the use of epidurals and other painkillers during childbirth. In case you’re unfamiliar, Hypnobirthing centers around a key philosophy — namely that much of the pain associated with childbirth is actually caused by anxiety. This pain can be greatly reduced if not eliminated altogether by breathing techniques and other exercises in relaxation.

Dr. Grantly Dick-Read is regarded as the founder of this natural childbirth technique which was first prevalent in the 1930s. American Marie Mongan, a follower of Dr. Grantly Dick-Read, gave birth to four children using his techniques. She took Dick-Read’s work and developed Hypnobirthing which is now used in more than 26 countries.

As the Telegraph reports:

Some practitioners say self-hypnosis is intended to help women experience contractions not as pain but as “surges”. “When the ‘surges’ come, women learn to let go rather than fight them,” explains Renee Buchanan, a hypnotherapist from Scotland and member of the UK’s Hypnobirthing Advisory Board. She believes many first-time mothers are programmed to be frightened of birth which exacerbates pain levels.

Two quick points here. First, being a man who will never, ever give birth, I really am not qualified to chime in on this one. But second, being a man, I’m dumb enough to do just that. And giving birth would, indeed, seem like a painful process to me. Whether you’re frightened of it or not seems beside the point. I mean, hey, the thought of breaking my arm is a frightening one. And if a soothing voice emanating from a speaker could lead me to a peaceful and anxiety-free place in my mind that rendered me unafraid of such a fracture, I’m still pretty sure I’d scream “OWWWW!” the second someone snapped my arm in half.

But, again, as a man, what do I know? So I turn to my colleague, Danielle. She recently wrote about it on BeingPregnant, but more in the context of it just being another one of the choices out there for soon-to-be moms. Sierra, however, who wrote about actual Hypnobirthing over at StrollerDerby. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Sierra, you should know that she’s a very openminded person — the kind of person who would be prone to giving “alternative” techniques such as Hypnobirthing a chance. So it came as no surprise when I found out that she had done just that. Here’s what she had to say about it:

I’m all for Hypnobirthing, and Birthing in Awareness, or whatever path you want to take to a blissful birth experience. But I think any woman who goes into labor thinking her breathing exercises will take all the pain away is in for a rude awakening when the contractions start.

And that’s kinda where I am with it. If it’s something that a woman is hell-bent on doing, I’m all for it. But it seems to me that if such a woman is expecting a pain-free experience out of the deal, the she’s in for a surprise.

What do you think? Would you entertain Hypnobirthing?

Image: stock.xchng

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About John Cave Osborne


John Cave Osborne

John Cave Osborne is a writer whose work has appeared on such sites as Babble, TLC, YahooShine, and the Huffington Post. John went from carefree bachelor to father of four in just 13 months after marrying a single mom, then quickly conceived triplets. Since then, they have added one more to the mix, a little boy they named Grand Finale. Read bio and latest posts → Read John's latest posts →

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0 thoughts on “Hypnobirthing: Deep Breaths a Good Substitute for an Epidural?

  1. E @ Oh! Apostrophe says:

    I’m pregnant for the first time, so I can’t comment on the pain, but everyone who I’ve talked to describes childbirth pain as very different from bone-breaking pain. Bone-breaking pain is telling your body something is wrong, but there’s a purpose behind productive laboring pain. We’ll see in a few weeks when I get to experience this, but I can see how handling the two would be very different.

    1. johncaveosborne says:

      @ E @ Oh! Apostrophe — such a good point and a great example of why I’m not the best person to chime in on this! GL with your childbirth and thanks for reading…

  2. Sarah says:

    Part of Hypnobirthing (and most fully natural techniques) includes the knowledge that your body produces pain relieving hormones as part of the birth process (very different from breaking an arm). If you think about it, how did women do this *before* pain meds? For those of us who managed to have a pain-free birth using Hypnobirthing techniques – it IS possible. I think any method to bring a healthy baby into the world is the perfect method….you’ll get no judgments from me on what makes the experience work for you.

    But if you are looking to try a pain-free option…it is possible. Hypnobirthing may be for you… was for me.

    1. johncaveosborne says:

      @Sarah — great comment. thanks for your perspective. and the whole “broken arm” thing was obviously a bad analogy. that said, people broke arms before pain meds, too. but people use them now to help alleviate pain for any number of reasons — including (obviously) childbirth. and it seems to have different results for different folks. i’m glad the Hypnobirthing worked for you. and, like you, i’m good with whatever works.

  3. Leanne says:

    I’m a doula and so far have worked with three people who have used hypnosis for birth. The first person was a Hypnobabies user who was having her second hypno birth and did the Hypnobabies home study course twice, religiously practicing daily for months , the second woman read the Hypnobirthing book and listened to the accompanying CD a couple times and the third was a Hypnobirthing user who took the the group class and practiced daily for a couple of months.

    The first and third births just blew me away. I’ve gone to dozens of births and those two looked as if they were pain free. And, in fact, the women both said they experienced no pain, just pressure that became intense at the end. Let me tell you, my jaw dropped. It was as if magic were used. The women were peaceful, in control of their emotional response and unlike any other women I’ve worked with, epidural users included, chatted and joked between their contractions as if we were having a hen party.

    I would love for all my clients to have births like that. I was so impressed with their experiences, I’m getting advanced training to support hypnosis clients.

    The second woman I worked with who only read the book and didn’t practice regularly or often had a very poor experience. The principles did not work for her at all. I feel very strongly that this was because she didn’t practice. From my observations and research, practice is key.

    If you just read the book and learn a couple hypno techniques, you will not experience the peaceful pain free births that many hypnobirthers have. But, it’s a totally achievable feat. I’ve seen it.

    Here is a link to one of those birth mamas in active labour, in the middle of a contraction: and here is the same woman in transition, moments before she pushed her baby into the world:

  4. Megan says:

    With my birth last July, I was hell-bent on avoiding an epidural. I watched videos, and learned about hypnobirthing. As much as you can prepare, and think you are going to do it this way and that way…. you just cannot be prepared for what happens during birth. Having an open mind is HUGE.

    Unfortunately, my natural birth was not to become a reality – I ended up getting an epidural after 24 hours of a “naturally” induced labor (no pitocin, called a “foley catheter”). I wish the doctors would have just let my body do it’s thing – and ultimately it was my choice… they didn’t hold me down. BUT – they made me feel like I would be irresponsible if I wasn’t induced. They said they couldn’t be held “responsible” as to what could happen if I didn’t. What do you say to that? I was a first time mom put into a corner….

    Having said that – I’m glad I did have one (although getting it was the most pain I have ever experienced). I was “present” for the birth. After not sleeping for 24 hours of induced pain – I could have a rest before my little angel showed up. A moment that I will never forget.

    I do think some people use the word epidural like it’s a dirty word. They do have their place. Induction births are one of those places. Your body is not ready for the pain – therefore the need for an epidural is justified in my mind. I think an automatic pitocin/epidural is the thing we should avoid. They are so common now, and all of those drugs are so stressful on the baby. During pregnancy, we told to avoid this drug, that drug, chocolate (!), coffee, etc…. but as soon as we get to the hospital – BOOM – pitocin, epidural, oxycodone prescriptions…. etc. It’s very weird.

    I guess my point is – be flexible. Don’t decide for yourself one way or the other. You don’t know what your labor can bring. Don’t assume you won’t be able to handle the pain, and don’t assume you can handle it. You won’t know until you are there. And remember – the most important thing is a healthy baby.

  5. Steph says:

    Very interesting. I didn’t do Hypnobirthing, as such – several friends did and had drug-free, straightforward births of four children between them. I just wanted to say that in my experience it seems to make sense. I happened to have a bucket load of natural happy hormones floating around in the last few months of my pregnancy and by the time labour started I was feeling very capable and positive and had organised a doula, which for me eliminated any need for anxiety (towards which I am normally prone) as I felt having an experienced woman there to support me I had no need to worry as she would be able to tell me everything was normal and going well. I experienced the same “letting go” of the contraction pain as described above and really went with the whole experience. I know that if I weren’t so relaxed and positive and supported the whole experience would have been far more painful and may have ended up very differently. I’m pregnant with our second and will look into Hypnobirthing to give me and the baby a good chance at a similar birth experience as I had with my daughter.

  6. Debbie says:

    I don’t mean to be all “grrrr” here, the author sounds like a nice guy, but he should really have done a little bit of reading into what physically takes place during labor before writing this article. I mean, it’s not just his musings posted on his personal blog, this is an article posted on a very read forum. Put a little effort in.

    “And giving birth would, indeed, seem like a painful process to me. Whether you’re frightened of it or not seems beside the point. I mean, hey, the thought of breaking my arm is a frightening one. And if a soothing voice emanating from a speaker could lead me to a peaceful and anxiety-free place in my mind that rendered me unafraid of such a fracture, I’m still pretty sure I’d scream “OWWWW!” the second someone snapped my arm in half.”

    If your frightened you will tense. Labor is a very muscularly heavy activity (contractions are the loosening and tightening of the vertical and horizontal muscles surrounding the uterus). If you tighten a muscle that really, really, really wants to loosen, it’s going to hurt, a lot.

    “Is Hypnobirthing a good alternative to epidurals and other painkillers during a vaginal child birth?”

    Considering the potential complications of medical interventions (that’s not to say there aren’t potential complications with a woman who has been sapped of energy due to a prolonged unavoidably painful labor), I think the real question should be “Are epidurals and other painkillers a good alternative to natural relaxation techniques during a vaginal child birth?”.

    I didn’t do hypnobirthing, but religiously practiced full body progressive relaxation techniques and stretched and toned targeted muscles and tissues involved in the activity of labor. I also took a natural childbirthing class. I would describe my laboring experience as uncomfortable, hard, sweaty, hot work. But not particularily painful, because I was able to control my fear and physical reactions to the new sensations. I was up and about feeling great the next morning (gave birth at 1147pm).

    1. johncaveosborne says:

      @Debbie — how should i put this?? glad you didn’t mean to come off all “grrr.” and you didn’t. but you certainly came off patronizing, if not condescending. but it’s awesome you think i sound like a nice guy.

      @Leanne — it’s great to hear from you, and thanks for the link!

      @Megan — what an incredible, well articulated story. so glad you shared it. “be flexible” is fantastic advice.

      @Steph — again, what a powerful story. i wish you luck w/ your second. here’s to hoping it goes as well as the first!

      @stephanie — good stuff. it’s always nice when you learn a technique and can take bits and pieces and apply them successfully. i’m really glad you commented.

  7. stephanie says:

    I used it and it was wonderful. I wish I had known abot it with my 1st. I wasn’t sure I would be able to use it all, class was hard for me b/c I’m a little adhd, but there were parts of it I was able to use in labor, expecially the breathing and making “useful” noice. fantastic

  8. Mommymichael says:

    Hi, my name is Michael and I’m the one that Danielle mentioned in her post.
    I have tried both hypnobirthing and Hypnobabies. I would highly recommend te latter. It’s a very detailed childbirth education course that also teaches real medical hypnosis (opposed to guided imagery for relaxation). I have been very comfortable in the births of my three children, but you can follow the links on Danielle’s page to read about that. Lol

    I would suggest any pregnant mother to look into it. They have both a homestudy course (which is what I used) and live classes. Both are excellent.
    What is so great is that opposed to the first program I took Hypnobabies does not guarantee a pain free birth. But because of the excellent hypo anesthesia learned in the program, many moms find that they are very comfortable, relaxed and more fully aware during their birthing times. And the childbirth education that comes with it helps parents know ALL their choices whether in home or hospital.

  9. Robin says:

    I used hypnobabies for my first. Let me start by saying this, birth gets an 8 on the 10 scale of pain. Mind you, I never finished my hypno studying. But birth is not the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced is that because I was more prepared than most? Maybe or I’ve had worse pain than most. But I can say it did help me stay calm. My midwives couldn’t believe when they got there that I was in labor because I looked asleep during contractions, and later that “you never reached the spinning head, swearing stage”. So I think with a more concerted effort this time I can maybe not be pain free but reduce my pain even further. And I’ll take that anyday over an epidural, which runs risks of complications. But part of this is mind over matter if you think it isn’t going to work, you’ll find a way to sabotage yourself. And it is WAY MORE than just deep breathing. And thinking that it is normal to have as much pain as others (on tv show) will convince yourself that you should be in that much pain. I choose to beleive that labor will be work, but will not be the end all be all in they way of pain.

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