When Fi Star-Stone tweeted her way through the birth of her son in September this year, she caused a media storm. The mother of two, from Staffordshire in the English Midlands, runs a childcare advice website, Childcare Is Fun, and wanted to share her positive home-birth experience with followers of her site, maintaining that sharing the event on Twitter was a distraction that helped her cope with the pain of childbirth. She isn't alone in her assertion; there are many who advocate that pain, even the pain of childbirth, can be alleviated by mind over matter, and that women can have a pain-free and drug-free labour.
HypnoBirthing is a method of birthing pioneered by Marie Mongan in the US. She teaches that pain is primarily caused by fear and anxiety and if you can eliminate these two elements by using self-hypnosis, you can have a pain-free birth. HypnoBirthing is gaining in popularity and there are now practitioners in 34 countries around the world.
Self-hypnosis does not mean entering a trance and being unconscious of your actions, as Jasmine Collins, a certified HypnoBirthing practitioner based in Dubai, explains. "HypnoBirthing involves really deep relaxation, where you take yourself off somewhere else mentally. We do this every day: when we are day dreaming or deeply engrossed in a book, it's that same hypnotic state."
During the five-week course, expectant mothers and their partners are taught several different "scripts" to help them self-hypnotise into a state of deep relaxation. Women are also taught breathing and visualisation techniques so that rather than bearing down when they come to deliver, they are instead "breathing the baby out". This deep breathing and visualisation is "so much more effective than pushing" explains jasmine. "You never hold your breath. That way the mum is getting enough oxygen so she doesn't get so worn out and the baby is getting enough oxygen too."
Jasmine used the HypnoBirthing method during the birth of her second child last December. "I have a new-found respect for my body," she says of the technique: "We don't teach you anything your body doesn't know already. We eliminate fears and anxiety you may have around the birth and give you confidence in your own abilities."
Melissa Barry, an American who has lived in Abu Dhabi for just under a year, explains that she was very concerned about the birth of her first child, due next month. "I was really anxious, I wanted to have the baby at home in the US and have a home-birth, but it all got so complicated."
Instead, Melissa, a yoga instructor, decided to take up the HypnoBirthing course after meeting Jasmine, and is now feeling prepared and happy with having her baby in Abu Dhabi. "I feel really fortunate. I have new skills from Jasmine to blend in with the skills I have from yoga and my work as a doula [birth companion]. I have reserves to help deal with the pain and I feel really comfortable with it now. The last birth I attended as a doula, the mother used hypnobirthing techniques and it was the calmest and most serene birth I have attended."
Jasmine believes HypnoBirthing can be very empowering for women, from being in-tune with their bodies to being informed about their choices. "We teach them how to ask questions about what is suggested. Rather than feeling railroaded into something, this gives them the power to make choices about the birth."
While the technique advocates a birthing method that should make pain-relieving drugs unnecessary, it is not wholly against the use of drugs. "It's not a case of, if you've had an epidural then you've failed in some way," explains Jasmine. "It's more whether it is your choice or not. It's about having the most positive experience you can through being in control, making informed decisions and having the tools and techniques to relax and let your body get on with what it's designed to do."
Alysha St Germain, who has lived in Abu Dhabi for nearly two years, heard about HypnoBirthing from an online forum. As the birth of her first child in her native US hadn't gone entirely to plan, she is hoping for a different, more natural birth when her second child is born next month.
"My daughter's birth was a bit traumatic, and not exactly what we had hoped for, although we did come out with a beautiful baby. I didn't speak up for myself; I felt I had to listen to the doctors no matter what they said because they were the professionals, rather than listen to my own body. It was hard to focus during the delivery; there was so much intervention. It wasn't a peaceful and relaxing experience."
Medical research confirms that hypnosis techniques can really work to reduce pain. Dr Tarek Ansari is the head of the Department of Anaesthesia at Al Corniche Hospital in Abu Dhabi, which handles around 10,000 deliveries a year.
He explains: "Acupuncture and hypnosis are two of the non-pharmacological pain-relief methods that have been shown to actually work, in that they reduce the need for pharmacological intervention. Women might still use drugs, or even an epidural, but they might require lower doses or have the drugs given less frequently."
Dr Ansari explains that we can use our minds to control the pain we feel. "The psychological component of pain can affect the way we perceive pain," he says. "Pain may be exaggerated because of a negative psychological experience." Physiologically too, hypnosis can help us deal with pain by stimulating the release of helpful hormones, as Dr Ansari explains. "Exercise, massage and hypnosis can help release endorphins and reduce the transmission of pain signals in the body."
Conventional pharmacological pain relief such as pethidine and Entonox can affect the baby and an epidural necessitates monitoring the mother during and after the birth. However, Dr Ansari states, some form of pain relief, whether by drugs or self-hypnosis techniques, is usually in the medical interests of both the mother and baby. Increased maternal heart rates, blood pressure and breathing as a result of experiencing intense pain can diminish the amount of oxygen the baby receives.
Dr Ansari recommends that women keep an open mind when they enter the delivery room. "Not only is each woman's perception and feeling of pain different, but those perceptions can change very fast in a dynamic situation such as labour. It's normal to reassess the situation and go in another direction, as long as the mother is comfortable and the baby is OK. The main objective is to have a healthy mother and a healthy baby."
Alysha explains that, thanks to the skills she has learnt on the course, she is much more positive about her impending labour. "When I first started the class I was very, very anxious," she says. "Now, I just feel at ease. Ready, relaxed and confident in my body and what it can do. It's changed my mind a lot."