WTF Is Hypnobirthing And Does It *Actually* Work?

The Duchess of Cambridge revealed she used the technique. Here, we speak to experts about what it is and how women use it.
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If you haven’t tried hypnobirthing yourself, chances are you know someone who has. The Duchess of Cambridge recently revealed she used the technique – which, contrary to what you might think, doesn’t involve swinging pendulums or staring into someone’s eyes – to help her through pregnancy and childbirth, saying she discovered the “power of the mind over the body”.

The mixture of deep breathing and visualisation exercises also helped her deal with hyperemesis gravidarum – a severe form of morning sickness. “I saw the power of it, the meditation, the deep breathing and things like that... and I realised this was something I could take control of,” she said.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I was given a hypnobirthing tape at an NCT class. I played it in the car and when I went to sleep – but while it was relaxing (and similar in theme to mindfulness apps such as Headspace), I don’t remember getting much more from it than that. I might be sceptical, but other women call the practice “life-changing”. So how does it actually work?

What actually is hypnobirthing?

Hypnobirthing is basically a pre-birth preparation that tries to give pregnant women a positive view of birth – as well as a belief that it doesn’t have to be painful, states the National Childbirth Trust (NCT). The aim is a shorter, more comfortable labour, with less need for intervention. And the practice teaches women that pain is a fear response you can avoid by learning the right techniques. It’s usually taught face-to-face in classes – either over five to eight weekly sessions, or two longer daytime sessions. It can also be taught online.

Katharine Graves, a hypnobirthing teacher who trained midwives at the Lindo Wing, where the Duchess of Cambridge gave birth, has been teaching the practice for 15 years – usually delivering classes over a two-day period. She says combatting the fear of mothers-to-be is the main objective.

“As soon as a bump shows, you’re told horror stories,” she says. “You see traumatic births in the movies – fear is everywhere. We have limited resources in our hospitals and birth can often feel like a conveyor belt, with women put under huge pressure to be induced. They’re not told of the alternatives. Hypnobirthing gives you alternatives.”

A common misconception about hypnobirthing is that women lose control of their thoughts and actions in a hypnotic state, the NCT says. “In fact, women who learn hypnobirthing use it to be less aware of external stimuli. They also learn to have a more focused attention and responsiveness to verbal or non-verbal suggestions. The idea is that these suggestions might make her feel safer, more relaxed and comfortable, and give her some relief from her pain.”

What do women learn?

Mum-of-three Siobhan Miller had a positive experience of hypnobirthing – and later went on to become a teacher. Common techniques women learn, she explains, include an introduction to the science and biology around labour and birth, followed by relaxation exercises – such as breathing in for four, and out for eight, in blocks of four – throughout a contraction.

There is also mindfulness involved, guided meditation, ‘light touch massage’ which can be done by a partner, and information on induction and intervention. Women are encouraged to make simple decision-making frameworks, weighing up the benefits and risks. They’re also taught what to expect from labour and how to deal with additional challenges, such as haemorrhaging.

So, does it really work?

Zeenath Uddin, head of quality and safety at the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) says there is evidence that women feel more “confident, relaxed, less fearful, focused, and more in control when using hypnobirthing” – but it’s important the technique is taught by competent practitioners.

“Many midwives are qualified and trained to do this,” Uddin says. “What is most important is women are getting all the available information when it comes to pain control and birthing techniques so they can make an informed choice that is right for them. We do know that for many women who use hypnobirthing it works and enables them to manage their pain in labour quite effectively.”

Not many studies have looked at the effects of hypnosis in labour and childbirth – although one review found that hypnosis might reduce the overall use of pain relief during labour, except for epidural use.

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Miller, who founded The Positive Birth Company and has written a book about the benefits of hypnobirthing, can also attest to the benefits. She had her first baby when she was 21. It was a long process, involving a cascade of intervention – and she suffered from postnatal anxiety for a year after. When she fell pregnant again, seven years later, she thought there had to be a better way. She was doing a Masters degree in psychology, and was interested in the power of the mind. So, she went on a two-day hypnobirthing course.

“It’s very common for women who’ve experienced birth trauma to seek control... so I went on to plan a home birth with my second child, and used the techniques I’d learned through hypnobirthing,” she says. “It was life-changing. It lasted just two hours 20 minutes. I felt euphoric when he was born – elated, capable, strong and empowered – and my sense of confidence carried on. I felt like I could do anything, simply because I gave birth on the sofa!”

After she trained as a teacher, Miller offered an online hypnobirthing course. In the first month, she says 15,000 women signed up. “It was overwhelming,” Miller says. “But it just went to show how many women wanted something different to help them take back control of their birth experience.”

Miller believes the techniques can also be used by women having surgery – “If you’re having a C-section, these are techniques that can help you feel calm and grounded and confident. You can even have your own music playing, but lots of women don’t know that. As the saying goes: ‘If you don’t know your options, you don’t have any.’”

Does it work for everyone?

Lots of women share their positive stories of hypnobirthing – but it doesn’t work for everyone. The NCT says there can be a difference between what you expect to, or hope, will happen during labour and the reality of your birth experience. It can also take time to learn about hypnobirthing, practise it and master the breathing, visualisation and self-hypnosis techniques.

London-based mum Nicola has previously blogged about it not working for her. Despite being a “huge advocate of hypnobirthing during [her] pregnancy”, and reciting the affirmations “word for word” by the time she was 40 weeks pregnant, things didn’t go to plan.

“The line that was ringing in my ears the whole way through, the line that ‘empowered’ me to refuse the stretch and sweeps and induction was: ‘my body and baby know what to do’,” she wrote on her blog. “I had listened to it twice a day for months, I believed it. I can now confirm neither my body nor the baby knew how to get things started!”

Others have also shared stories of hypnobirthing not working for them online – but like everything in life, it’s different for everyone. What works for you, might not work for someone else. Find out more about hypnobirthing on the NCT website.