Mind Over Matter

Hypnosis can help you get through labor pain.


Karen Mead didn’t act like a candidate for trauma-free childbirth. Quite the opposite. When the now-39-year-old New Hampshire mom went in for her first prenatal blood test, she passed out as the syringe went in. Recalls Mead, “My OB said to me, ‘If you don’t get help, you’re not going to make it through labor and delivery.’”

She knew he was right. Not only did Mead have an overwhelming fear of needles, but she also was terrified at the prospect of a painful labor. Yet months later, she delivered a healthy baby girl, Brianna (now 6), without using anesthesia or experiencing her lifelong “needle phobia” and — most astonishingly — without pain.

What made the difference? At her doctor’s suggestion, Mead contacted Marie Mongan, M.Ed., M.Hy., a certified hypnotherapist in Epsom, N.H. After a free consultation, which included a trial hypnosis session, she and her husband, Mike, enrolled in Mongan’s four-session HypnoBirthing course at the beginning of Mead’s third trimester. There they learned deep relaxation, breathing and visualization techniques that enabled Mead to free herself from the anxiety and pain she associated with labor and needles, as well as self-hypnosis techniques she could use during labor.

In one exercise, Mead imagined herself floating in a mist of “natural anesthesia,” weightless, tranquil, limp and numb. While in this relaxed state she listened to reassuring “affirmations” about the birthing process: “I trust my body to know what to do” and “My muscles work in complete harmony to make birthing easier.” Other women have visualized themselves burning pages of a book containing all the negative ideas they’d collected about birthing. You might end up focusing on the image of you, your partner and your new baby in a serene, joyful first encounter.

Throughout her labor, Mead remained alert yet completely comfortable and free of fear — a surprising but welcome contrast to what she had been expecting. “I was in labor for three days,” she reports, “but I was totally relaxed — even with an IV. And it wasn’t painful at all.”

Realistic expectations

Though still far from widespread, the use of hypnosis during childbirth is gaining momentum. Its premise is simple: Conquering fear and focusing the mind can help you relax your body and deliver your baby with minimal trauma. When used successfully, hypnosis promises what neither traditional childbirth preparation nor epidural anesthesia can — a natural, intervention-free delivery, often with significant liberation from pain. According to the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis Web site, hypnosis also may shorten labor.

Sound too good to be true? It can be if your expectations are out of sync with reality: ASCH reports that roughly two-thirds of women are able to use hypnosis as the sole analgesic for childbirth. Some practitioners’ goal is a pain-free experience; others view hypnosis as a way to deal with, but not eliminate, inevitable pain. HypnoBirthing, for example, emphasizes enjoying a comfortable, safe delivery. “We don’t want women to panic if they feel a twinge,” explains Mongan. So look for a program or practitioner whose goals match yours; some hypnotherapists, for instance, will accompany you into the delivery room if you like.

Using hypnosis during labor does not involve losing control or surrendering your will; nor does it require special psychic skills. But being committed and receptive to the process certainly helps. “And if you’re utterly skeptical, it probably won’t work,” Mongan says.

Karen Mead was more than receptive to the process when, using the same techniques two years ago, she gave birth to a second daughter, also with impressive results. “I started out scared to death of having a baby,” she says. “But [using self-hypnosis] made childbirth the most beautiful experience of my life.”