When she gave birth to her daughter last July, Cassie Friesen, of Broomfield, Colo., imagined she was inside a bubble and repeated the word “peace” with each contraction.
The 25-year-old former nanny learned these relaxation and visualization techniques in a hypnotherapy course she took in hopes of minimizing the pain of childbirth. “It’s so corny-sounding,” she says, and yet it worked. She describes her daughter Aster’s July 7 arrival as “fun—even enjoyable,” words not many other mothers use when describing the experience.
Seeking alternatives to anesthetics and other kinds of medical intervention in childbirth, more women are turning to hypnotherapy courses—and some hospitals are recommending them to patients. Hypnosis is a state of deep relaxation in which a person is susceptible to the power of suggestion and the brain’s perception of certain senses can be altered, says David Spiegel, psychiatry professor at Stanford University. It has been successfully used for weight loss, smoking cessation and pain management.
Hypnotherapy-based childbirth classes range from a $140 home-study course of CDs to instructor-led courses in homes or hospitals costing as much as $500. Pregnant women learn to train the mind to relax on demand and avoid dwelling on pain. In the classes’ special vocabulary, contractions may be called “pressure waves,” and complications may become “special circumstances.”
HypnoBirthing LLC was started in Chichester, N.H., in the early 1990s by Marie Mongan, a former college counselor trained in hypnotherapy and author of the book “HypnoBirthing.” Today, more than 1,300 certified “Mongan Method” instructors guide couples through visualization sequences like “opening rose” and “rainbow relaxation,” to be used during delivery. Hypnobabies LLC, of Stanton, Calif., began in a community center and now sells classes and self-study kits to some 20,000 women a year, according to founder Kerry Tuschhoff, a former HypnoBirthing instructor who launched her own brand in 2002. Her method promotes “eyes-open childbirth hypnosis,” in which women are said to remain in deep hypnosis even as they walk, talk and move around the room during labor.
“Many Hypnobabies moms have pain-free and fear-free births,” Ms. Tuschhoff writes in her course introduction. The pain of childbirth, she said in an interview, is transformed into “comfortable feelings.”
Marjie Hathaway, co-founder with her husband of the Bradley Method, a childbirth preparation course popularized in the 1970s, scoffs at the notion that unmedicated childbirth could be widely experienced as “comfortable” or “pain-free.” “I think that’s a lie,” Ms. Hathaway says. “This is probably the hardest work you will ever do in your life.” Based on the techniques of the obstetrician Robert Bradley, the Bradley Method eschews medication but doesn’t teach hypnosis. Bradley classes encourage couples to practice tense-and-release exercises together; about 20,000 couples a year attend.
Hypnotherapy doesn’t guarantee every woman a pain-free delivery, Ms. Mongan and Ms. Tuschhoff said in separate interviews. But women who use it often recall the experience as comfortable, even pleasant, they say. “We are having more and more comfortable births,” Ms. Mongan said. “I can’t tell you the number of people who have taken Hypnobabies and said they only had moments of intensity or discomfort,” Ms. Tuschhoff said.
French obstetrician Fernand Lamaze pioneered the idea of mental conditioning and breathing patterns to ease labor during the 1950s. The Lamaze Method is still widely taught in hospitals. Childbirth classes centered around hypnosis are “the natural next step,” says Jeanette Schwartz, a registered nurse and president of the International Childbirth Education Association, of Raleigh, N.C., whose members are birthing educators and health-care professionals. She doesn’t endorse any particular childbirth preparation program. Couples should explore a few before deciding, she says.
Some obstetricians take exception with the skeptical tone many hypnotherapy programs take toward hospital delivery methods. Ms. Mongan writes in her book about what she calls “forced pushing” in labor. “Pushing can be counterproductive and actually slow down the birthing process,” she writes; women feel an urge to push because of “conditioning that stems from a deeply embedded notion that babies cannot descend on their own.” Instead of teaching women to “push,” Ms. Mongan says, she teaches them to use the “natural expulsive reflex” and “birth breathing.”
Such thinking gives some doctors pause. “There’s no reason to tell a woman not to push,” says Nancy Chescheir, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In addition, idealized childbirth scenarios don’t prepare couples to be flexible and can set them up for disappointment when medical intervention becomes necessary. “You can’t predict how your labor is going to go,” Dr. Chescheir says. “The childbirth education experience should be about ‘How can I partner with my provider?’ ”
As hypnotherapy courses become more popular, some hospital staffers say they’ve had more women ask to skip anesthetics in labor. In Ogden, Utah, Marle Shelton-Hoff, manager of the labor and delivery unit at McKay-Dee Hospital, says, “Once we started to see more of the HypnoBirthers . . . they blow you away because they are so controlled and ready.”
By ANNE MARIE CHAKER