Eight expecting couples sit circling a dimly lit room one Tuesday evening in Berkeley, California. Brightly painted plaster casts of pregnant torsos hang on the wall.
"When I tell people I'm a hypnotherapist, they almost always make the joke where they ask me to make them bark like a dog or dance like a chicken," says Kathy Woo, a certified hypnotherapist and HypnoBirthing® childbirth educator, to the group assembled for her class.
Tonight, there are no such parlor tricks. Instead, she's going through breathing and visualization techniques for the pregnant mothers to practice in the weeks leading up to childbirth. When the day comes, Woo's pupils hope to use these techniques to put themselves into a state of hypnosis while they are in labor.
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HypnoBirthing's grand promise is its potential to reduce or even eliminate the "birthing mama's" pain. According to class materials, HypnoBirthing is as much a "philosophy" as it is a technique, complete with its own vocabulary. Instead of contractions, you will hear about "surges," "sensation" instead of pain, "birth breathing" instead of pushing. The materials encourage parents-to-be to learn "to think and speak in the kinder softer word substitutions" so they can "truly embrace the concept of gentle, normal birth."
The materials encourage parents-to-be to learn "to think and speak in the kinder softer word substitutions" so they can "truly embrace the concept of gentle, normal birth."
The idea is that pain during childbirth stems mostly from what HypnoBirthing materials call the "Fear-Tension-Pain syndrome." Hypnosis can remove that fear and tension and the mother will experience an easier, more comfortable birth, the method's advocates say.
The visualization and breathing techniques are meant to help the mother-to-be reach her desired state of relaxation, or hypnosis. One of the techniques Woo describes in her class involves a long slow inhale while visualizing a balloon inflating in the mother's belly. Once the balloon is inflated, she exhales while imagining moving the balloon through her birth canal.
In her class, Woo shows videos of mothers giving birth while using techniques like these to hypnotize themselves, and they do look remarkably relaxed. A few even look like they are sleeping through the early stages of labor.
Couples in Woo's five-class series pay a $380 registration fee that includes class materials and relaxation CDs. HypnoBirthing is a trademarked program that first emerged in the 1980s, but the concept of a trance-like state in childbirth has been around longer than hypnosis has been a word. There are other practitioners, like Rachel Yellin, who've developed their own childbirth preparation classes that integrate the techniques of hypnosis.
"When a woman relaxes her body, her brainwaves change, and as her brainwaves change, her subconscious mind is at the forefront," says Yellin, whose San Francisco-based classes and audio program are very popular. "When she goes into state of hypnosis, she is in a relaxed state of communicating messages to her subconscious mind." At its essence, Yellin says, it's about "getting the mind out of the way to get the body to do what it's going to do naturally."
Now, it's not just the hippy dippy ladies who come to the classes.
"Think of animals," Yellin says, referring to the calm, trance-like way she says animals birth their young. She was formerly a HypnoBirthing certified instructor, and has since developed her own childbirth education series that focus heavily on self-hypnosis.
Though it's not new, hypnosis-based childbirth classes are a trend that has picked up in the last few years, says Yellin. "I've definitely seen a spike in interest." In addition to HypnoBirthing classes, mothers and parents-to-be can take Hypnobabies®, Hypbirth, ChildbirthJoy, Birthing through Hypnosis, and many other programs that hypnotherapists and childbirth educators have developed on their own.
She relates the surge to a long-term trend of women seeking low-intervention childbirth, often synonymous with home birthing. A 2010 National Vital Statistics report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 20 percent increase in homebirths, mostly driven by middle-class women. "Now, it's not just the hippy dippy ladies who come to the classes—there are all kinds of educated and sophisticated people who have done the research and have decided that a natural childbirth is the safest and best way to go," she says.
But does it work? Does self-hypnosis result in less pain, or even no pain at all?
It doesn't mean you don't feel anything. Birthing mamas may feel sensations like tightening and stretching.
There have been several studies looking into hypnotherapy during childbirth. In 2012, Cochrane, a London-based health research collaboration, did an overview of systematic reviews on pain management for women in labor and found that there is insufficient evidence that hypnosis is more effective than placebo for pain management in labor.
However, a second Cochrane review of the literature around hypnosis during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postnatal period acknowledges that it has been "utilized for effective childbirth preparation," and "it has been reported that women have benefited in terms of obstetric outcomes, such as the ability to cope with pain, and have a shorter period of labor."
Kathy Woo, the HypnoBirthing instructor, says she had very little pain during the birth of her daughter. "I would say for myself, I had zero pain from the surges," she says, using the trademarked program's word for contractions. "That being said, that doesn't mean you don't feel anything. Birthing mamas may feel sensations like tightening and stretching," she says.
Harmony King took Woo's class in preparation for her first child's birth this past May. A doula herself, she felt fairly confident with childbirth, but her partner wanted to take the class to arm himself with tools for supporting her. "They do really teach you, 'Here's how to be a labor coach,'" says King. "It breaks down the whole physiological process." But when the time came, King said she wasn't able to focus on the hypnosis techniques. "[During birth,] everything just went out the window."
[During birth,] everything just went out the window.
Rachel Yellin says there is a wide range of experiences with hypnosis-based child birthing techniques. Some mothers attest to a painless birth, and other mothers find that it doesn't help them at all.
"There is no way to measure, no way to know what a woman's experience would be without the tools of hypnosis," she says. However, she says her students are grateful for the preparation classes provide. "I've had women say that they wouldn't have known what to do without taking the class," she says.
"It's very natural, and really puts the whole birth in perspective," says Yuli Fershtat, sitting next to his pregnant wife Inbal in Woo's class. Yuli and Inbal decided to take the class after Inbal's positive experience with hypnotherapy to stop smoking. They also know several other couples taking the class to prepare for their births.
"Hypnosis brings us closer to the present moment," Inbal says. "Birth is just a very intense moment."