Like many women, even though I wanted a family, I was dreading having to give birth. Thanks to a lifetime of negative cultural conditioning, I just wasn’t confident that I’d be able to cope without some kind of medical intervention and a whole lot of drugs. After all, people said ‘pain worse than childbirth’ for a reason, didn’t they?
But then one day as I was flicking through a newspaper, I came across an article about hypnobirthing . My interest piqued, I read about this education programme, which prepared expectant mothers for a relaxing birth free from fear, so that her baby would be born calmly and gently and often pain-free. Other advantages were shorter labours, fewer interventions, less or no need for analgesia, lower rates of post-natal depression— all leading to a quicker recovery following birth. It all sounded really positive (if not too good to be true) and gave me a glimmer of hope that birth didn’t have to be quite so traumatic.
So when I became pregnant, I was lucky enough to find a local hypnobirthing course run by the NHS . Calling Midwife Kath Silvey to book a place , she recommended some books to read before the first session: ‘The positive birth book’, by Milli Hill and ‘The Hypnobirthing Book’, by Katherine Graves. They were perfect preparation, so when my husband and I arrived for the first of three weekly classes, we already felt positive and receptive.
Knowledge is the enemy of fear, and the fantastic course turned on its head everything we thought we knew about childbirth. Under Kath’s experienced guidance, we gained a detailed understanding of the birthing body and the key hormones which helped and hindered birth; the effects of different environments on giving birth and how like mammals, women birthed far better in dimly lit, intimate spaces where she has the freedom to move around and follow her instincts.
This understanding was accompanied by techniques to shed our fear and to deal with the intensity of birth. This included: birth breathing, visualisation, anchors, deep relaxation, massage and self-hypnosis so that the birthing woman could remain calm and relaxed and allow her body to birth as it was naturally designed to do, whether it was at home, at a birth centre or in a hospital. All the information we received was backed up with statistics, so we could make informed choices and avoid unnecessary interventions. We discussed the advantages of a natural birth for mother and baby, but also the various types of analgesia available and their effects.
The course gave us an excellent introduction to hypnobirthing, but the real preparation was at home over the months leading up to the birth. Thinking of the event in the same way as running a marathon, we did our ‘training’, by listening to hypnobirthing tracks, practicing breathing and visualisations and our ‘anchors’. We watched the ‘Flowers’ episode of ‘Moving Art’ on Netflix which gave me some perfect imagery for my visualisations at the different stages of birth. We also used constructive hypnobirthing language: surges instead of contractions , intensity over pain and birthing instead of labour which helped positively condition our minds.
The range of positive birth stories which we read and watched (from the straightforward to the not so straightforward) really helped at times when I was feeling anxious, especially following some unhelpful or negative comments or people’s raised eyebrows in our plan of a birth centre over a ‘traditional’ / ‘safer’ birth at a hospital for our first baby. A great antidote was remembering key findings from the Birthplace Cohort Study: that for low-risk pregnancies, birth was actually very safe and there were significantly fewer interventions in midwife led units than in hospitals. In any case, I knew that if we did need more medical assistance then we would be able to be transferred to an Obstetric Unit.
A sure sign that the hypnobirthing was working for me was that in the weeks leading up to the birth, I felt increasingly calm and relaxed; able to brush off negative comments or images about birth. It also helped that I was confident in my set of birth preferences and my husband’s role as birth partner, leaving me to fully concentrate on birthing. As the baby’s ‘guess date‘ got ever closer, I became more and more excited and felt prepared for birth whichever way it was to unfold.
On Valentine Day morning, I felt a dull ache in my back and pelvis, which gradually increased in intensity as the day progressed. Was this our baby on the way? In the following hours, I pottered about at home relaxing, whilst drinking lots of water and trying to eat. With the lower back and pelvic pulses increasing in intensity, we called our community midwife at around 4pm. When Siân popped round she confirmed that things were indeed underway and that she would call and see us again in a few hours to check on our progress.
With afternoon turning into evening, the pulses were now surges, becoming increasingly more powerful and intense. I walked around the house, leaned over my birthing ball and did my deep breathing. I thought about everything that we’d learnt and of all the positive birth stories. By the time Siân returned at around 8pm things had really ramped up and she advised us to head to the birthing centre, which was expecting us. We’d already visited the birthing unit a few months before, and I couldn’t wait to be immersed in the giant pool, (or the spa jacuzzi as I jokingly called it). As we drove, I shut my eyes and tuned into my body, my breathing and my visualisations. The surfer in me imagined each surge as a wave building, then cresting and breaking before the next one. The surges were now starting to get closer together and becoming longer and more intense. I kept reminding myself that they weren’t stronger than me because they were from me and were bringing our baby to us. Sitting in the car, the pressure in my back and pelvis was becoming heavier and more acute and at this point I started longing for it all just to be over. But by continuing to breathe deeply and using my visualisations I managed to swat the negative thoughts aside, and things eased when I was able to get out of the car and walk around again.
Entering our room, Siân was preparing the pool and I immediately started to relax again seeing her smiling, familiar face. With the the lights dimly lit, the soothing sound of the running water, it was calm, quiet and had an enchanting, ethereal glow. It was just perfect until the nausea I had been feeling for a few hours turned into full on sickness and I ended up throwing up…a lot. My confidence shaken, Siân reassured me that it was completely normal and I was glad to get rid of the demons.
With Siân now finished for the night, midwife Stella was on hand. Stepping into the birthing pool, the warm water felt delicious against my skin and it felt like the best, most natural place for birth: I could follow my instincts and the water soothed and dulled the intensity of the surges. Throughout the birthing process, my husband and Stella were fantastic — my husband gave me emotional and mental support, encouraged me, handed me water and played the hypnosis tracks and music I had chosen, while Stella constantly boosted my confidence, calmly checking and reassuring me that baby and I were OK, and explaining what was likely to happen next, without disturbing my flow.
As birth progressed through the first stage, I felt completely in my own cocoon, whilst at the same time being aware of what was happening around me. I could tune in and out of the tracks and talk without emerging from the wonderful relaxed almost dreamlike state I was in. I continued breathing deeply while the surges kept ramping up and then I felt a pop in the pool — my waters had broken. Not long after, my surges became much stronger, needing all my strength and concentration and I can remember asking for gas and air to be set up. But as soon as it was ready, I found I didn’t need it: there was a magical shift as my natural hormones kicked in and I felt almost euphoric; the surges were productive and I felt completely calm and almost invincible.
At the pushing stage, I followed my instincts and pushed when my body directed me. I could see the finishing line in sight and remember actually marveling at how clever my body was, even mentioning this to my husband at the time as I was so relaxed! One of my greatest fears before birth was crowning and tearing, and it didn’t help that people seemed to have endless stories of the ‘ring of fire’. Being so at ease, I couldn’t believe this stage didn’t hurt at all, it just felt like my body was stretching and accommodating my baby’s head. After doing the hokey-cokey a few times, my baby’s head finally popped out, shortly followed by her body. Stella caught our daughter and then she was on my chest enjoying our post-birth afterglow. I felt elated that our baby was finally with us, and I had achieved a natural, gentle birth as we had hoped.
We waited for the cord to stop pulsating before it was cut and I passed our daughter to my husband for some more skin- on-skin as I expelled the placenta. Thanks to Stella this was managed naturally too and our daughter was soon back in my arms enjoying her first feed from me, forming a new bond.
All three stages of birth were around four and a half hours. Although an intense experience, I hesitate to describe it as painful. It took a lot of strength and concentration, but with the knowledge and tools from the hypnobirth I was able to work with my body’s natural processes and to understand what was happening. It had felt grueling at times, but the flip-side was the amazing sense of achievement and natural high afterwards.The gentle birth my baby and I experienced, also helped us recover swiftly.
Although I was the one giving birth, I really felt that it was a team effort. My husband, my baby and I all played our part as well as the excellent midwives who assisted us through the night, instilling their calm confidence throughout. This had a great effect on me emotionally, and the birth experience helped us bond quickly as a family.
Now that I have experience of hypnobirthing, I can honestly confirm that it wasn’t too good to be true and view birth as a positive experience. While I used its techniques to achieve a natural birth, this is just my story. A positive birth experience can be achieved in many ways not just via a natural birth. I know women who used hypnobirthing with other types of birth (including caesareans and births with analgesia/epidurals), but we all agree that our births were positive experiences as we felt fully informed and in control and approached the event from a place of positivity and not fear.
Giving birth to our daughter was one of the most empowering experiences of my life. Through fully believing in myself and letting go, I had conquered a great fear. It gave me new found strength and a whole new perspective of myself. I wondered what else I could achieve with the same self-belief! It also made me realize how naturally incredible women’s bodies are with birth being a normal physiological process. All too often women doubt themselves, their bodies and their abilities. Women’s bodies should be celebrated for the incredible gift of sustaining, giving birth and nourishing life.
Hopefully my story will contribute to the growing positive movement in changing the perception of birth, and give some confidence to expectant mothers in the miraculous process of bringing new life into the world.
‘Giving birth can be the most empowering experience of a lifetime – an initiation into a new dimension of mind-body awareness’ . Ina May Gaskin, Birth Matters.