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Hypnosis during pregnancy: Can labor really be pain-free?

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Hypnosis for childbirth has garnered a lot of attention in recent years and even has a celebrity following with the likes of Kate Middleton and Kim Kardashian reportedly using the techniques to make their experiences easier.

If you’re pregnant and worried about giving birth, you might have wondered if the techniques would work for you.

Here, find out what hypnosis really is, how it works, and if it can really make labor pain-free.

Fear causes pain

Forget the image of a hypnotherapist waving a clock and taking control of your mind. “The definition of hypnosis is relaxation plus focus,” said Cynthia Overgard, founder of HypnoBirthing of Connecticut, a prenatal education center in Westport.  Just like yoga requires relaxation and deep breathing during a physically challenging moment, hypnosis can do the same for the pregnant mom.

HypnoBirthing, a specific hypnosis method and program, is based on the idea that fear and tension will cause pain. When a woman is in labor, oxytocin—an endorphin known as the feel-good, love hormone—not only produces contractions but can help the mother to have a safe, comfortable birth, according to Overgard.

“Where birth ends up getting complicated for humans is that women often don’t feel 100 percent safe, trusting and relaxed,” she said.

And when that happens, a woman’s body stops producing oxytocin.  Adrenaline starts to rise, and it redirects blood flow away from the cervix and the uterus into the arms and legs. The result is a flight or fight response, which can make a woman feel anxious, fearful, and even prevent her cervix from dilating and slow down labor.

“Adrenaline or fear, literally (and) physically, turns off labor,” Overgard said. “This goes way beyond just positive thinking. This really comes down to the chemical hormones. It’s a total, pure science.”

How hypnosis can help

HypnoBirthing uses tools like deep breathing, visualization and relaxation techniques that can help the woman maintain a calm body and mind.  During labor, she might dim the lights, keep the room quiet and play relaxing music.  

Another major component of the program is listening to guided relaxation, which is an intentional way to practice hypnosis and condition the mind and body to be calm and relaxed. Mothers also listen to birth affirmations which can make them feel confident in their ability to give birth.  

“Your subconscious mind is hearing messages that bypass the conscious mind, and they change the beliefs in your mind,” Overgard said.

Word choice is important

Another focus of hypnosis is on the words used before and during labor and delivery. “The words we say and the words we hear have a direct impact on the physiology of our body,” Overgard said. In fact, when reassuring words are used as women were administered a local anesthetic, they experienced less pain, according to a study in the journal Anesthesia & Analgesia.  

“There are subtle ways that you can change the words that are used that can really change that whole experience,” said Dr. William Camann, co-author of the study and director of obstetric anesthesia at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Mass. For example, in HypnoBirthing, “sensation” is used instead of “pain” and “surge” instead of “contraction.”

Colin Christopher, a clinical hypnotherapist who works with expecting mothers throughout their pregnancies, said his clients have experienced shorter labors and a significant reduction in pain. In addition to relaxation techniques and visualization, he uses the hypno-epidural technique to simulate what an epidural would feel like. And instead of using the word “pain,” “we talk about allowing your body to become focused, calm and relaxed,” he said.

Does it really work?

According to the HypnoBirthing Institute, mothers who used the method were less likely to have cesarean sections, interventions and pre-term babies. About 25 percent described their birth as painful and 10 percent as extremely painful.

Yet measuring how effective hypnosis is really depends on your goals, especially because childbirth can be so unpredictable. So if your hope is to use hypnosis to try to avoid an epidural but end up getting it anyway, “you could be very disappointed, because the expectations were not realistic,” according to Camann, who is also the author of Easy Labor: Every Woman's Guide to Choosing Less Pain and More Joy During Childbirth.

Plus, if you use hypnosis, it doesn’t mean you can’t also have a doula or get an epidural. “Many of the different methods of labor pain relief are compatible with each other,” Camann said.

“The goal of HypnoBirthing is not natural birth,” Overgard said. “The goal is to be calm and in control.”

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer and copywriter specializing in parenting, health, healthcare, nutrition, food and women's issues. She’s also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.