Move over Lamaze. Hypnobirthers say their form of deep relaxation takes the panting and pain out of child labor.
The phone rang at 7:30 a.m. and I stumbled out of bed, bleary eyed and eight months pregnant, to find a message from Dan Gilman: his wife Laura Beth was in labor. I had never met the Gilmans, but they had generously invited me to witness the birth of their third child. They were using a pain control technique I was learning myself: Hypnobirthing.I quickly organized a trip to the birthing center in Danbury, Connecticut, but just one hour after Dan’s call, before I’d even made it out of New York City, Mitchell Gilman made it into the world.
When I spoke to her a week later, Laura Beth was apologetic. I was ecstatic. She was living proof of what hypnobirthing proponents kept telling me – that mothers who use this method of self-hypnosis to give birth in a trance like, deeply relaxed state often enjoy miraculously short labors. “He came out 28 minutes after my waters broke.” Laura Beth told me. “And I was not in pain. I was able to really relax.”
I wasn’t an easy convert to hypnobirthing. For a start, hypnosis made me think of a traveling showman inducing an audience member to dance like a chicken. On top of that, my mother, her mother, every mother I’d ever met had drummed into me that child birth was agony. Pain free labor? Yeah, right. But my husband Alex – a doctor who sniggered every time my prenatal yoga video urged me to open up like a lotus blossom – was hypnobirthing’s unlikely champion.
As a scientist, he embraced the logic of hypnobirthing: if women are terrified of childbirth, the fight or flight reflex kicks in once the contractions start. This reflex shuts down organs that are nonessential to fighting and fleeing, including the uterus. With reduced blood flow, the uterus cramps, causing pain. If women could relax, the theory goes, they would experience no pain, have more effective contractions and therefore a shorter labor.
Marie Monogan, 71, a Concord, New Hampshire, hypnotherapist, invented the technique and has taught it at her institute since 1989. When I told her I was afraid of failing at hypnobirthing, Monogan gave me simple advice: “Trust your body and your baby. They know what to do.”
Alex and I signed up for private lessons with hypnobirthing teacher Suzanne Fremon. At first, I found it incredibly hard to clear my mind and relax. Expecting to find an alley in Alex, I vented after the first session about the silliness of imagining myself floating on rainbow clouds of mist. “Don’t focus on the language,” Alex said, sounding for all the world like a New Ager instead of a neurologist. “Focus on the intent.” After a few weeks of practice on the subway, I could get to the end of taped 15 minute exercises and have no recollection of the of the train’s having stopped. In our third of five sessions, Fremon pinched me while I was deeply relaxed. I felt nothing. When I was alert again, she pinched me as hard as before. I pulled away. Ouch!
Dr. Lorne Campbell Sr., an upstate New York family practitioner and clinical professor of family medicine, introduced hypnobirthing to his practice four years ago. Since then, he says, his C-section rate has dropped from 25% to 1%, and none of his more than 200 hypnobirthing patients have ever requested analgesic drugs during labor.
Word is slowly spreading; Mongan has trained more than 1,700 people in 15 years. At the start, most were hypnotherapists and midwives. Now, about half are doctors and nurses. “This is not fringe or alternative,” she says. “The more doctors and nurses see this, the more they realize it’s no fluke.”
Sadly, I didn’t get to prove that point to my doctor – our son was a breech baby and delivered by caesarean section. But the hypnobirthing lessons were not in vain: they helped me cope when two anesthesiologists made six attempts at inserting my spinal bloc for surgery, and I was able to relax through the post-surgical pain with a minimum of medication. Four months later, when our son finally falls asleep each night, I know just how to relax and swiftly follow suit.”