What exactly is hypnobirthing, anyway?

Have you ever heard a song on the radio and been transported instantly to another time and place? I’m showing my age here, but Frankie Goes to Hollywood ‘Relax’ always takes me back to the supermarket where my mum did her weekly shop in 1984. I don’t normally think about this place at all but whenever I hear that song there I am, tagging along behind the shopping trolley. Or Simple Minds ‘Don’t you forget about me’ says school disco, with the smell of dry ice and feeling that teenage mixture of awkwardness and excitement.


We’ve experienced millions of these moments in our lifetime and couldn’t possibly be thinking about all of them at all times. But a simple prompt can open up any particular memory and immediately we’re remembering what we saw, heard, smelt or tasted, and felt, and we’re feeling the same emotions. And as we’re feeling those emotions, our body is showing a physiological response to that too. All this happens so quickly, it’s an automatic response and may be prompted without us even realizing.


These automatic associations work in just the same way for concepts. The experiences we’ve had and ideas we’ve heard relating to the concepts we encounter throughout our lives are all stored away somewhere in the back of our minds. Ideas like ‘work’, ‘home’, ‘baby’ and of course ‘birth’ spark a pattern of thoughts, feelings and physiological reactions that can set the course for how we respond to whatever happens next in our day.


We may have collected a lifetime’s worth of negative and fear-inducing ideas about birth, so the thought of labouring and giving birth might well prompt a feeling of nervousness and the accompanying physiological fear response. But what helps the hormones of labour and the birth process flow smoothly is the opposite state of mind – feeling relaxed, calm and connected. With hypnobirthing we have a way to do some de-cluttering in that mental store, to take a good look at the material we’ve collected over time relating to labour and birth, throw out what’s no longer useful and add in new things that boost our confidence. This allows us to look forward to and actively engage with the birth process, which helps us tune in to our inner experience mentally, emotionally and physically, and work with our bodies through pregnancy and birth. We then have the opportunity not just to endure labour as a means to an end, but work with it in a way that feels satisfying, calm and in charge, even enjoyable, blissful or euphoric.


Once people understand what hypnobirthing is about, it generally makes perfect sense to them. These are the most common questions I get asked.


If I do hypnobirthing will I have a pain-free birth?

You might… or you might not! But you might well discover that whether you describe the sensations of labour as painful or not, this bears little relationship to how satisfying the birth is. Women’s experiences with the sensations of labour vary a lot – it’s absolutely true that some women don’t experience labour as painful, and don’t find the word ‘pain’ a useful or accurate descriptor of their experience. It’s also true that some women have what they describe as a painful birth that is at the same time a thoroughly positive experience. Most (though not all) women experience contractions as an intense sensation – but that doesn’t necessarily amount to pain, and even when it’s pain that doesn’t necessarily amount to suffering. It can be really useful to explore the factors that make the difference here.


What if I don’t get the birth that I want? Will I feel like I’ve failed?

Birth, like life, doesn’t always go to plan. It’s normal and understandable to feel sadness, disappointment, even grief, if things don’t work out the way we hoped. But the concept of ‘failure’ in birth is something our culture really needs to get rid of as it helps no-one. Do we talk about ‘failing’ at digestion, or walking, or hugging? Do we think we’ve failed if it rains on our wedding day, or a delayed train means we’re late to meet a friend? Of course not, so let’s root out this unhelpful cultural narrative. Hypnobirthing is about having the tools to respond in the way we would like to the circumstances we find ourselves in, and that’s why it can be especially helpful if labour takes an unexpected turn. It can help us get into the best frame of mind possible to decide on the wisest course of action, should we need to.


Can I do hypnobirthing by myself or do I have to do a class?

There are many good hypnobirthing methods out there, and lots of practitioners locally. You can download hypnobirthing mp3s for free here https://www.mindfulmamma.co.uk/free-resources/free-downloads/ and hypnobirthing books are widely available in paper and audio formats. While some people choose to DIY, there are benefits to attending a class or workshop. Of course I would say that! But many people have told me they found the workshop helped them have a deeper understanding of the techniques and how to use them, and helped their partner engage actively with hypnobirthing.


My partner thinks this sounds a bit airy-fairy

(or) I’m single, will this still work for me?

Many birthing women comment that using hypnobirthing was a great way to involve their partner in birth preparation and help them feel confident about what they will actually be doing during labour. Partners like the way it gives them clear information about how the birth process works, and practical tools for supporting the birthing woman. Most women find the support of a birth partner invaluable during labour, but it’s not always the woman’s life partner who does that job. Some women are single, and some women choose to have somebody else supporting them, for example another close relative or friend, or they hire a doula.


I’m already 39 weeks pregnant! Is it too late?

I’ve seen this approach have amazingly quick results for people, one woman I worked with went into labour the day after our class and was able to use what we’d covered. That said, most people find the greatest benefits of these techniques with repeated practice over weeks and months. Although the workshop I run is just one day, most people are listening to mp3s regularly before the workshop and then stepping up their practice afterwards. Practice is really important, but it’s easy – little and often is most useful, and that might be spending a few minutes practising techniques every morning then playing an mp3 to relax to in the evening.


What is the link between hypnobirthing and mindfulness for birth?

While different approaches drawn from different traditions, both are ways of practising the art of letting go, physically and emotionally, and tuning in to our inner experience in the moment with kindness and openness. I find they work very well together as an integrated approach, and that’s what I enjoy teaching.


If I’m hypnobirthing can I still use movement/ make a noise/ use a TENS machine/ have an epidural?

One of the things I love about hypnobirthing is that it’s so adaptable – you can be really creative with it and use it in combination with anything else you want to do, and any other comfort measures that take your fancy. It’s a common misconception that hypnobirthing means keeping very still and quiet. While some women do make very little sound or are physically quite still, others combine hypnobirthing with a lot of dynamic movement, a lot of sounding (or mooing or roaring!), or periods of movement and stillness, sound and quietude. You can do it in the way that’s right for you, the way that works for your body and your baby on the day.


Will you make me cluck like a chicken?

It’s incredible how persistent this myth is! It’s a hangover from stage hypnosis, which is very different. Hypnobirthing and hypnotherapy are about harnessing the resources you already have, to help you achieve the things you want – I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do, and I’m not interested in trying. What excites me is seeing how people can use these simple techniques to take big steps in the direction they want to go.


Is this just for hippies?

This really is for everyone, people who use hypnobirthing come from many different walks of life and use the techniques in many different types of birth. Hypnosis and hypnotic techniques are widely used by all kinds of folks from sportspeople to business executives. Hypnobirthing is becoming much more widely known, I would say almost mainstream now. Over a decade ago when I had my older children I’d never heard of it, but in the 5 years I’ve been teaching hypnobirthing in Oxford I’ve seen it go from a bit left-field to a completely normal thing to do. Most midwives are very well aware and supportive of hypnobirthing.


Is this about having a perfect birth?

Hypnobirthing is about getting the best out of the birth circumstances you find yourself in, optimizing the chances for your best possible birth. You really can use it for any birth, from the planned caesarean birth to birth in the sea with dolphins, and the many varieties in between. Birth is part of life, and I don’t know about yours but my life is rarely perfect! While life isn’t generally perfect it is often good. This isn’t about setting ourselves some kind of standard we have to achieve. There are many different ways to have a positive birth experience and hypnobirthing can help us make the most of whatever unfolds on the day.


“I got to 10cm without any pain relief and found the breathing techniques were able to help me cope with the experience and keep me as calm as possible during intense contractions. Before doing a hypnobirthing workshop I was terrified of labour but after the class we both left feeling more positive and able to think about labour in a rational way.”


“Well, the labour process was interesting and ended up being quite far removed from the natural birth I wanted but I felt so positive about the whole experience and that the right decisions were made at the right times. I remained in control, relaxed and calm throughout even when it became apparent the outcome was going to be different to what I had wanted and planned.” (Claire and Ian)


Guinevere Webster is a clinical psychologist and mindfulness teacher specializing in birth and parenting. She runs mindful hypnobirthing workshops in Oxford through Mindful Mamma, and volunteers for Positive Birth Movement Oxford and Oxford NCT Home Birth Group.

This article was first published in the May 2018 of NCT Oxford’s digital newsletter.