“Hypnobirthing?” inquired my husband. “Isn’t that, like… whale music and stuff?”
I was seven months pregnant, and as curious as he was. I’d given birth twice before to two healthy children. The labours had been short and I’d managed on gas and air. Despite that, I’d found my second labour frightening. I was induced a week before the baby was due, because of anxiety – we’d had a late miscarriage under a year before, and I was paranoid about the movements. My body didn’t feel ready, and the experience was brutal – I remembered each contraction like a mountainous wave; feeling adrift and helpless.
So this time, for the third (and, my husband insisted, last) labour, I wanted something different. I craved techniques I could draw on; something to give the illusion of control. So, despite being a previous sceptic, I thought I’d give hypnobirthing a try – and turned to Gin Fund for recommendations.
Following some helpful reviews, we booked a course with Gina Potts in Blackheath (www.zenbirth.co.uk). Before the classes started, Gina sent us some audio recordings so we could practice. In her slow, comforting voice, she took us through visualisation exercises – one relating to colours and fish underwater, another focused on the body. We both found them helpful in dealing with work fear on a Sunday evenings – both of us falling into a deep sleep.
On a Sunday in October, we found ourselves at Gina’s studio in Blackheath Standard – the first of two, day-long sessions. Both of us were unsure what to expect – just relieved to have sorted out the logistics of childcare for our two, older children. There were eight other couples, and we settled on yoga mats and beanbags around the room.
Gina started by asking us to associate words with childbirth. The results were predictable – the class members (most of whom were having their first child) recorded words like “fear”, “pain” and “helpless”.
She then took us through the theory of hynobirthing. In a nutshell, this is that womens’ bodies are well adapted for giving birth. But when the woman is fearful (perhaps because of scare stories, or a negative hospital atmosphere), blood is diverted from this task. The body is in conflict, with the fear fighting against the task of opening and expelling. This creates a feedback loop whereby more fear and tension is created, and then more pain. Hypnobirthing aims to prevent this by relaxing the mind, so it can allow the body to do its work.
That made logical sense to me. But my next question was – how could it be achieved? How could you stay relaxed in the face of such an unpredictable process?
The rest of the sessions focused on techniques for achieving this – both physical and mental. On the physical side, Gina took us through breathing exercises – both ‘up’ breathing for contractions, and ‘down’ breathing for the act of birth itself. She took us through ways to create the ideal atmosphere for birth – think darkness, peace, minimal interruptions. In other words, the sort of environment a cat seeks when it goes to the airing cupboard to have kittens. On the psychological side, she led us through deep relaxation exercises which can be repeated during Labour.
At no point at all were we hypnotised in a David Blane, run-into-the-street-naked way. It was about finding a way to relax and go to a safe place mentally. The birth partner had an important role in this, Gina explained. They were given a series of ‘prompts’ – relaxing phrases and touches which, if practiced, would lead their partner to let go in an instant.
We left the class feeling we’d learnt something valuable, with application beyond childbirth. Gina’s professional and sensible advice, her warm persona, and her soothing voice on the recordings, stayed with us. Now it was time to see if it worked in practice.
Perhaps my only observation on childbirth would be “expect the unexpected”. The previous two labours had been very short. So I should not have been surprised when I had two days of irregular contractions, on and off, a week after my due date. Unfortunately, I was approaching the overdue “cut off” – and, although things were happening, we were called for induction.
My heart was sinking – it was all too familiar. The hospital ward, the bright lights at 11pm, the timetable set by others. Better get some sleep if we could, the midwife said; they would start it all off in the small hours.
I felt tearful, frightened and frustrated. But I remembered Gina; her advice that wherever you are, whatever the circumstances, you can create your own bubble of calm. I lay down, closed my eyes, and thought peaceful thoughts. And then, something amazing happened. The contractions came back.
“I think something’s really happening,” I said to my husband, who was ordering stuff online to relieve his boredom.
“Oh well, don’t get your hopes up – get some sleep.”
But I couldn’t sleep. I had a feeling – and the feeling was so right, and peaceful, and natural. I ate some crackers and a banana. The contractions got more painful, but infinitely bearable. Remembering Gina, I didn’t resist them – I willed them on. I thanked my body for them. I told my husband to stop ordering wine and massage my back with herbal oils.
After a couple of hours, I asked the midwife to check my progress. “Better get to the birth centre,” she said, to my delight and amazement. “Your baby’s coming very soon.”
The bubble of calm stayed with me as we walked through the hospital, from the medicalised environment of the antenatal ward to the beautiful, calm birth centre. “Are you sure you don’t want a wheelchair?” asked the midwife. I shook my head. The weirdest thing was happening. I was loving this. I was actually enjoying it.
There, I climbed into a birthing pool of warm water. I felt in awe of this process and how right it felt – so much so, that I got worried. “Shouldn’t it hurt more?” I asked the midwife, who just smiled.
I floated there for about an hour, music on the stereo, breathing through the contractions. And then, a few sensations that were more intense – I gripped the poolside for support.
“Can you put my hair up?” I asked my husband, desperately. My long hair had become waterlogged and I felt it was pulling me into the water. Every ounce of strength had become important.
And then, an undeniable urge to push. In the class we had been encouraged to “breathe” the baby down, but for me it was more physical – I just wanted to bear down and force it out. The pressure became unbearable, I cried out – but as with so often in childbirth, this real pain was just a sign it was almost over. I felt the baby wriggle in the water. Then she was there, huge and real and pink, and I was beside myself with joy.
Florence was a big baby – 9lb 7oz – and I gave birth to her without a scratch. For that, I give great thanks to Gina and her methods. She gave us a peace which remained throughout the birth, and beyond – Flo was the calmest baby, and slept through the night from 2 weeks old.
It would also be wrong not to thank the amazing staff at Lewisham hospital, who were totally in tune with Gina’s practice. There does seem to be an emerging medical consensus about the best conditions for birth, which is very much in tune with the hypnobirthing theory.
So in the end, there wasn’t a whale in sight – just me, lolling happily in a birthing pool! Contrary to my previous beliefs, hypnobirthing is not some far-out, mysterious art – it’s a practical technique which makes huge amounts of sense. My only regret is that it is not offered, as standard, to all couples – free on the NHS. One day I hope it will be.
In the meantime, I would warmly recommend it – and I would highly recommend Gina.