Pregnant women flocking to classes on self-hypnosis births

Posted on September 21, 2015

Steady increase in antenatal classes teaching alternative relaxation techniques, with more NHS trusts either subsidising the courses or offering them for free

Rachel Chilver, who used hypnotherapy for the birth, with her six-month-old daughter, Winnie.

It is the alternative birth method that midwives predict will be standard antenatal practice within a decade. Hospitals around the country are reporting a steep rise in the demand for classes in hypnobirthing, which focuses on relaxation and self-hypnosis during the birth process.

When Colchester Hospital University NHS Trust in Essex began offering hypnobirthing classes in 2012, it was running one class a month, teaching about 48 women a year. After steady increases in 2013 and 2014, the trust made the decision to offer the course for free. They now run 10 hypnobirthing courses a month and predict they will instruct between 720 and 960 women in hypnobirthing in 2015.

Almost 25% of women who give birth at the hospital and birthing units in the Colchester trust took a hypnobirthing course prior to delivery and almost one in six of the trust’s midwives are trained hypnobirthing instructors.

“It seems like the whole world wants to hypnobirth,” said Teri Gavin-Jones, a midwife and hypnobirth trainer at the trust. “Hypnobirthing is where water-birthing was 20 years ago. Back then it was considered a bit weird and there was a lot of scepticism from the medical community. But now every trust in the country does water births. Give it 10 years and hypnobirthing will be standard antenatal practice. It’ll be mainstream.”

At Royal Wolverhampton Hospitals NHS Trust the numbers are less dramatic, with about 5% of mothers using hypnobirthing, but the trust has seen a threefold increase in the number of women taking classes in the past five years.

Couples at hypnobirthing classes, which are subsidised by some NHS trusts and cost about £300 for five sessions from a private teacher, are taught visualisation, deep relaxation and breathing techniques, as well as self-hypnosis.

Rachel Chilver, 35, first encountered hypnobirthing while doing research when pregnant with her first child and despite being “quite sceptical” decided to take the course at Colchester hospital.

Chilver, a performing arts lecturer from the town, said hypnobirthing made the process of giving birth to her daughter, Winnie, now six months old, “absolutely amazing”.

“There was a sensation, but I wouldn’t say it was pain. It was pressure, I needed to use a breathing technique to handle it, but I didn’t ever go: ‘Ooh, pain.’” For a short period during labour she stopped feeling contractions altogether – “It must be the slightly hypnotic state I’d put myself into” – and while it got “intense” towards the end, she gave birth within two hours of arriving at hospital without the assistance of any pain-relief drugs. Most importantly for her, Chilver said that at the end of the process, she felt “really proud and empowered”.

Some women have reported feeling no pain at all.

Katharine Graves, the founder of KG Hypnobirthing and author of The Hypnobirthing Book, said she has encountered many women – including her own daughter-in-law – who had pain-free births.

“Hypnobirthing works on the premise that it’s unnatural to have pain [in labour] in the first place. The root of the problem is fear because everybody ‘knows’ that birth is painful so people have a bad experience and they pass it round. If you’re in my world you frequently get reports of women saying birth was the most empowering and wonderful experience and no drugs were needed,” said Graves.

She calls the growth in hypnobirthing in the UK a revolution and said it has grown so rapidly primarily because of Britain’s “strong, independent midwifery profession” and word-of-mouth advertising.

Scientific evidence is inconclusive about hypnobirthing’s impact on pain. Some NHS trusts have begun collecting data, with Wolverhampton Trust reporting that 80% of hypnobirthing mothers have normal births with no analgesic treatments, compared with 60% of the general population who have a normal birth. A small-scale 2006 study in Australia found that women who were taught antenatal self-hypnosis techniques reported fewer epidurals (36%) than the control group (53%) and lower use of other forms of pain relief.

However, the biggest study into the subject, a randomised trial of 680 pregnant women in the UK known as the SHIP trial, reported that self-hypnosis made no difference to either the method of birth – normal, instrumental or caesarian – or to the use of analgesic treatment between the group who were taught self-hypnosis techniques and the control group, though the hypnosis group did report a reduction in anxiety about birth.

Gail Johnson, education adviser at the Royal College of Midwives, said women should not be spooked by the method. “It’s not ‘one, two, three, go into a trance and wake up with a baby’. The hypnobirthing process is not necessarily about hypnosis, it’s often about focusing on something other than the pain of labour and that’s not something that’s particularly new.

“It’s always important that women are confident the people running the courses are competent and they seek out reputable trainers, but we think anything which offers women a wider choice in their pain relief is good. We’re not saying it’s right for all women, it’s part of a wider spectrum of support and care for women.”

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