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Labor of Lull

Author: Carrie Seidman, Tribune Reporter

Date Published:
Publisher: The Albuquerque Tribune

HypnoBirthing classes use awake hypnosis to help relax moms, companions and babies for delivery.

Everything was going beautifully.

The expectant mother lay in a relaxed and hypnotic state, breathing deeply with each contraction but never tensing in pain. Then, as the woman approached her final stage of labor, she gripped the edge of the table she was lying on, turned to midwife Jenny West and said:

"This is really hard."

Knowing the last phase of labor was the most challenging, West responded with sympathy and encouragement.

Soon thereafter, as the pacific mother contentedly nursed her newborn, West reminded the woman of her words.

"Oh, no," the woman said, shaking her head. "I meant the table."

West likes to tell that story because it shows having a baby doesn't have to be all about insurmountable agony and gut-wrenching fear.

At least, not if it's a HypnoBirth.

This decade's answer to the Lamaze classes of a quarter-century ago, HypnoBirth is designed to help a woman achieve a natural birth by maintaining a conscious but hypnotic state during labor and delivery.

The result is a birthing that "flies in the face of everything women tell each other in the Wal-Mart," says West, one of four women who teach HypnoBirthing classes in the Albuquerque area.

"There's no trauma drama," she explains. "One of the things that's profoundly different about it is that there is no purple pushing stage, where the woman is shooting her eyeballs across the room."

First practiced in the early '90s and still mostly the domain of midwives and home births, HypnoBirthing accounts for only a small fraction of natural births, and statistical data on its effectiveness is still being gathered.

But while the practice "can't guarantee you a pain-free birth," West admits, firsthand accounts say it reduces labor duration, complications and stress on both the mother and baby.

In fact, a HypnoBirth is often so serene it can change one's whole concept of childbirth, advocates say. The first time she delivered a "Hypno-baby," West says she "felt a little like I didn't know how to be a midwife anymore" because everything went so effortlessly. At the same time, because the hypnosis seemed to help so much, she was also elated.

"I felt like I'd invented having babies," she says.

West admits to having been skeptical herself when she first watched a "Dateline" TV episode on hypnosis and childbirth in 1999.

"I watched the whole thing standing up with my arms crossed," says West, 46. "I thought, `I don't buy it.' But at the same time, I'd always wondered why it had to be such an ordeal all the time."

Now, after presiding over more than 200 HypnoBirths, West is the one doing the convincing.

"It's been marketed in this country that birth has to hurt and it has to be long," she says. "This is about shedding all that fear-based information and putting the woman in the driver's seat."

Mothers who have experienced HypnoBirth after traditional deliveries say it provides the newborn with a more gentle entry into the world. They say their babies are calmer, sleep better and even have more easygoing, amenable personalities.

Yet, West says, we all sometimes forget that most important person in the whole birthing process.

She does remember, though, one HypnoBirth when that wasn't the case. When the baby was placed on the mother's chest, the woman looked deeply into the eyes of her tiny newborn and quietly said:

"I hope I did OK. I tried to be as gentle as I could."

Couples who attend classes in a large, but still somehow cozy, room of West's Four Hills home are treated to a nonstop, rapid-fire comedy routine.

West has never married or had a child of her own ("It takes a real man to live with a midwife because every couple's life is more important than your own"), but she is completely comfortable rolling on the floor, grabbing her own breast or waddling around the room like a woman in labor to make a point.

Wearing a T-shirt that reads, "Taking the Birthing World by Calm," she reaches over and digs her hand into a prospective father's abdomen, showing him how to feel his "uterus." She regularly refers to the fathers as "you gorillas," likening their role to that of the male silver-backed gorilla, who protects the environment of his birthing female.

West clarifies that no swinging pendulum or "you are getting very sleepy" is involved. Mothers simply close their eyes and listen to a prepared tape or the sound of their partners reading a script. Within moments they are deeply relaxed - yet still able to resurface with a simple command.

Among the other misconceptions West dismantles:

Hypnosis means a complete loss of conscious control.

"Like most people," West says, "when I thought of hypnosis it was: `They're going to take all my money out of my bank account! They're going to make me cluck like a chicken!' In fact, you're completely conscious, just deeply relaxed."

The use of hypnosis means the woman will not be "awake" for the birth.

"After my first HypnoBirth, I asked the woman, 'Where were you?' " West recalls. "And she rattled off everything that had happened in detail and in perfect order, including hearing her husband eating nuts in the kitchen and thinking she was going to have to clean up his mess."

A certain degree of skepticism about hypnosis or an overactive mind means this method won't work for you.

"It challenges your belief systems," West says. "But if you're willing to believe birth can be a positive experience - if there is a tiny kernel of desire, a little grain of hope - your subconscious will say yes."

After seeing that "Dateline" show in 1999, Albuquerque hypnotherapist Jean Stouffer decided to become certified to teach the method.

Her motivation was based, in part, on her own traumatic memories of labor.

The president of the Southwest Hypnotherapists Examining Board, Stouffer lost her first child five days after his birth in 1968. The baby's problematic positioning resulted in the administration of pitocin (a drug that forces contractions), an epidural (spinal block) and an eventual Caesarean section.

"I don't want anyone to have to go through what I went through," says Stouffer, 64, who believes the death was because of stress on the baby. "The whole idea of being able to birth this way is something I never got to experience. It's just magical."

Yet in the United States - where one of every fourth births is a Caesarean and hospital deliveries are the norm - gaining converts can be a challenge, Stouffer says.

Doctors fear being sued if something goes wrong without their having intervened, she says. Women want the "convenience" of a definite delivery date or the surety of guaranteed pain anesthesia, she says.

And there often can be a blind faith in Western medicine. (To date, neither the American Medical Association nor the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has taken an official stance on HypnoBirthing.)

"Women in this country are programmed to go, `Whatever you say,' to their doctors," Stouffer says. "There's this idea that doctors will heal something that's wrong. But birth is not wrong; it's natural."

The whole idea, she says, is to teach women and their birthing companions to work together so they won't need outside help.

"It's not about physiology or anatomy," she says. "It's about teaching moms that having a baby is the natural thing to do. Bodies know how to have babies. Minds don't."

Even after couples practice and watch videos of women birthing under hypnosis, they sometimes need more reassurance. So recently West had couples with newborns visit her class of expectant parents to describe their own experiences.

"It was more about keeping your focus than about anything that was going on inside," says Ilana Vogenthaler, who delivered her first child at home using the methods she and her husband, Aran, learned in West's classes.

Cradling her 8-day-old son, Koen, in her arms, Ilana says she became her own cheerleader during the birth, feeling with every surge, "My body works!" (HypnoBirthing has its own positive-reinforcement language, substituting words like "surge" for "contraction," "effort" for "push.")

Although she stops short of claiming the process didn't hurt, she describes it as an "extremely powerful but very peaceful" experience.

Sean Bergen, a Rio Rancho firefighter whose wife, Audrey, is due with their first child next month initially thought the idea of using hypnosis "was a bunch of hocus-pocus, really."

"Being a firefighter and a paramedic, I fall more into the medical model," he says. "I went because it was what Audrey wanted. I kept thinking, `How is this going to help anything?' "

But after attending a month of classes, practicing at home and experiencing a state of hypnosis himself, he's willing to admit he might have been too quick to judge.

Audrey, 35, has had a difficult pregnancy, including near-constant nausea and a cracked rib from vomiting. Her husband says hypnosis has come in handy - even before the birth.

"I've seen how it's helped her to sleep at night when she's had a rough day," Sean says. "And even though I still feel silly sometimes doing it, basically it's just getting her used to my voice, putting a picture in her head."

Unlike with her husband, hypnosis made sense to Audrey right from the start. As a pediatric occupational therapist, it seemed more logical to her than the fast-paced Lamaze panting of the past.

"That always seemed counterintuitive to me," she says. "It makes much more sense that you need your muscles to relax, not tense."

During the classes, Audrey, an admitted "control freak," regularly jotted down questions. Because "to me, knowledge is power," she says learning as much as possible has helped her face her due date with confident calm rather than terror.

"I'm realizing birth is one of those experiences where I'm just going to have to let go, and this gave me a tool to do that," she says.

"In fact," she adds, "it's already worked for me. I'm not afraid anymore. You leave class and you're actually excited about labor."

Hypno What?

  • What is it?
    HypnoBirthing is a type of natural childbirth in which the mother is in a conscious but hypnotic state during labor to achieve an easier birth without drugs or other medical intervention.
  • Who created it?
    New Hampshire hypnotherapist Marie Mongan developed the trademarked curriculum in 1989 after using self-hypnosis during her own childbirth.
  • Why does it work?
    Because the mother is deeply relaxed, she doesn't react with fear and increased tension to her body's natural muscular responses, advocates say. In turn, her body does not release adrenaline that can cause stress to both herself and the baby and prolong the labor, they say.
  • What does it look like?
    Through spoken scripts, recordings and light touch, the "birthing companion" (often the father) puts the mother into a state of deep relaxation, which is maintained until the baby is born. It is important for the mother and companion to have thoroughly practiced this process before labor, advocates say.
  • Where does it happen?
    A HypnoBirth can take place at home or in the hospital. Because the mother is open to suggestion while in the hypnotic state, it is important that those attending are positive and supportive of the birthing plan and that the room itself is peaceful, advocates say. Although the majority of births are without complication, it is important to have competent medical help - a midwife or doctor - readily available should they arise, advocates say.
  • What does it cost?
    In the Albuquerque area, where HypnoBirth classes are offered only by private individuals, the cost is about $300.00 for the mother and a birthing companion to attend four to five sessions. This charge is for classes only and does not include someone attending the birth. Insurance coverage varies widely; check with your health provider.
  • Where to learn more?
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