Jessica Alba did it. Tiffani Thiessen is a fan. Kate and Will committed to it. And rumors are Megan Markle and Prince Harry practiced before their son was born. With all those celebrity endorsements and a name worthy of a Vegas stage act, hypnobirthing sounds like the latest anti-science parenting trend. But the trend deserves a second (and perhaps third) look. The practice itself is actually based on replicable research. The all-natural prerogative animating the trend, however, should be met with skepticism. Hypnobirthing may actually be the right decision for many new parents, but many expectant couples are likely to head that route for the wrong reasons.
For more than 30 years, hypnobirthing has been a practice that brings together relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, and self-hypnosis. Here’s how it typically works: For five sessions, lasting two-and-a-half hours each, you and your partner practice deep-breathing exercises, not all that different than you might learn in a yoga or meditation practice. Your wife works on relaxing her muscles, and you both tap into a state of calm (again familiar turf for anyone who practices meditation). At the same time, your instructor walks you through guided imagery that encourages you to think of labor as something warm and inviting, as opposed to painful and scary. This would be the “self-hypnosis” part of the practice.
Together, at least according to its founder, Marie Mongan, hypnobirthing is meant to alleviate some of the fear that comes with childbirth. Rather than being seen as something risky — a dangerous, painful event that required a doctor in a white lab coat administering drugs and possibly surgery in order to achieve success, it is a way for a parent to focus on the experience that is under their control. “The body knows what to do,” says Maeva Althaus, a certified hynobirthing instructor in New York City. “Hypnobirthing helps get rid of the fear we’ve been taught about childbirth and turns it into a celebration instead.”
But do these unique relaxation techniques work?
There is ample science that would suggest they do. First, the breathing: Many studies have demonstrated the ability of deep breathing to mentally and physically relax the body, including a recent report in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, which found that people who committed to 20 sessions of deep-breathing classes over the course of 8 weeks experienced a significant decrease in emotional stress and cortisol levels (the body’s internal chemical produced by stress) compared to the control group. At the same time, deep-breathing exercises improved people’s ability to focus (good for labor), an effect that lasted after the session was over.
As for the meditative moments, research also suggests benefits: Two studies from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health found that people who regularly meditate are better able to control the sensation of physical pain compared to those who don’t.
Then there is the self-hypnosis. While it sounds like the most out-there of the techniques, it is in fact just the least well-known. Self-hypnosis is a technique that has been used by everyone from Olympic athletes to stage performers to “get in the zone” before big events. A study by researchers at Marquette University shows why: Women who practiced 30 minutes of self-hypnosis were able to significantly lower their heart rates and breathing rate (measurements of relaxation). And a recent French study found that a single session of self-hypnosis can reduce people’s resting breaths-per-minute (another marker of reduced stress) by up to 40 percent.
Put these together and you relax the nervous system, says Dr. Jennifer Lang., a Los Angeles-based obstetrician and author of The Whole Nine Months. In birth, there are a number of reasons this is important. Fear sends the body into what’s known as fight-or-flight mode, causing the release of multiple hormones in the body that tell it to brace itself for war. This causes the heart rate to rise, and sends blood flowing to the legs and arms (in preparation of fleeing), which means less blood flows to the uterus, supporting childbirth.
It also causes muscles in the body to contract as they guard against an impending assault. This tension is the antithesis of what your wife needs during labor: Getting your baby’s head to fit through the birthing canal requires physical relaxation (what all those birthing hormones are about). If the fear-driven fight-or-flight hormones win out over the birthing ones, you’re in for a long labor.
Furthermore, “the fear-pain cycle is tightly linked,” says Lang. “The greater your fear, the more you anticipate pain, and the more anticipation there is of pain, the higher people rate their pain on a pain scale.” In other words, if you expect something to hurt, it hurts a lot more than it otherwise would.
So what’s the catch?
There is a danger of hypnobirthing that comes not from the techniques, but the reason some parents sign up. A lot of hypnobirthing programs tout the “natural” benefits that may allow parents to use less drugs and skip the cesarian — and when certain parents see “may,” they read it as “must.” According to an analysis of five studies of hypnobirthing, women using hypnobirthing techniques were 50 percent less likely to need painkiller drugs during labor and 33 percent less likely to use an epidural. If this is the goal of the birth, this is certainly not a bad thing.
But parents should not stubbornly stick with the hypnobirthing method in the face of medical advice. In other words, deep relaxation to help manage pain is great. Sticking with hypnobirthing techniques over your doctor’s plea to have a cesarian before more complications arise — not as great. If you hold up hypnobirthing as a kind of moral prerogative, especially one that flies in the face of medical experts, it can become dangerous. After all, there’s no one-size fits all technique for birth.
Natalie Grammer, a certified instructor in Portland, Maine, who used hypnobirthing for her children’s births offers an example of just how to walk the line. “I wanted a natural childbirth at home, but both times I had complications and wound up in the hospital,” says Grammer. “Even so, what could have been scary and stressful was relatively calm and stress-free, because I was able to use hypnobirthing techniques to relax.” In other words, she stuck to the technique while also reading the medical experts in the room and getting the help she needed.
An Important Tip for Hypnobirthing Beginners
Studies suggest it takes three weeks to make a new behavior a habit, and hypnobirthing methods follow suit. It’s not a one-and-done deal, or even a five-classes-and-you’re-all-set set. “Hypnobirthing success is about the law of repetition,” says Grammer. “We provide couples with tracks to listen to nightly, using affirmations and imagery around the birth.”
For dads, the best part may be the bonding you’ll do with your wife throughout the experience. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for partners to work together,” says Dr. Lang. “Dads can give vocal cues and use touch as a way to help their partner relax.” Agrees Althaus, “Couples tell me one of the biggest surprises is how the classes brought them together. Fathers felt like they knew what to do during the labor, and mothers felt like they really had support.”