Does Hypnobirthing Really Work?

Science shows that mind over matter can work when it comes to easing labor pains.

pregnant woman in hospital bed iStockphoto

Sixty-one percent of moms-to-be opt for an epidural during their delivery -- and the demand for the procedure increases from year to year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But there's also a boon in the use of natural pain relief in childbirth, namely hypnosis courses such as HypnoBirthing -- The Mongan Method (a program founded by Marie Mongan that relies on self-hypnosis and relaxation techniques to help during labor and childbirth), and Hypnobabies. "There's been a big surge in interest over the last couple of years," notes Giuditta Tornetta, a birth and postpartum doula and author of Painless Childbirth: An Empowering Journey Through Pregnancy and Birth. She attributes the attention to two things: celebrities and science. "It certainly doesn't hurt that Kate Middleton, Jessica Alba, and Pink all reportedly used hypnosis for their birth preparation, but there's also the fact that hypnosis really works. A number of studies have come out confirming that hypnosis during childbirth is beneficial for the relaxation of the mom, and promotes better outcomes, too." For instance, a comprehensive 2011 analysis in the journal Clinical Psychology Review shows that hypnosis during labor and delivery tends to outperform standard medical care and interventions in relieving pain. But how exactly does hypnosis do all that? Here are the basics.

What is hypnosis? First off, it has nothing to do with a swinging pocket watch and a shady stage show. "Hypnosis is very much like meditation," says Maeva Althaus, a certified HypnoBirthing practitioner who offers private and group classes in New York City. "Hypnosis is learning how to achieve a state of deep concentration and relaxation -- and learning to release fears -- through visualization, deep breathing, reframing, and affirmations." When a mom-to-be practices it daily, it's much easier for her to remain calm and focused during labor and delivery. "Essentially, she trains to keep her mind still so her body can do what it knows how to do," Althaus says.

How does it work? Having a baby can be scary. You don't know what it will feel like or how your body will react. And there's often a focus on pain. "When you're fearful during labor, you go into what's called a fight-or-flight response, where your body produces catecholamines, which are stressor hormones," Althaus explains. "Your mind perceives what's happening as danger and your body reacts by tensing up and your muscles can't do what they are supposed to do, which is relax so your uterus can open." Fear also releases adrenaline, which can stop labor altogether. Hypnosis can work to counter this. "When a mom-to-be can stay relaxed, her endorphins and oxytocin will flood her body, bringing a natural high. She's more relaxed. Her body is less tense. She's more comfortable. Deep-hypnosis techniques can teach her to desensitize or to mute painful sensations," Althaus says. In fact, brain imaging has shown that hypnosis can suppress specific neural activity, which inhibits the brain from interpreting pain. To wit: Women who use hypnosis during childbirth had significantly fewer complications, with less use of Pitocin and fewer C-sections, compared with women who simply received support, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis.

How do I do it? There are HypnoBirthing classes, CDs, and books, but essentially you learn to reframe your thoughts on childbirth. "A lot of the language around birth is negative and tends to feed fear," says Althaus says. "Since the mind works through association, hypnosis works to change the associations to more positive ones." For example, instead of calling Braxton-Hicks "false labor," a HypnoBirthing practitioner would call it "practice labor."

Another part of the hypnosis process is simply becoming educated on what happens to the body during labor and birth. "Knowledge quells fear," Althaus says. "For example, I teach my moms-to-be that when they feel a surge [contraction], it's their muscles working to open the uterus and nudge the baby down. I don't use scientific words, just clear visuals."

Can I teach myself? Even if you meditate or already think you have a handle on self-hypnosis, it's highly recommended that you take a class. If time and money prohibit that, you can read a hypnobirthing book, such as HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method or take at home course, such as Hypnobabies Home-Study Course for Expectant Mothers.

    Birth Stories: Natural Labor

      Copyright © 2014 Meredith Corporation.

      All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.