Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Part 2 - Fear and Pain: A Cultural Picture of Childbirth...and What We Can Do to Change It

As discussed in Part 1 of this post, the experience of childbirth - and particularly the experience of childbirth as inherently painful - is strongly influenced by cultural perceptions and norms. In America, birth is largely defined by the culture-bound idea that pain and childbirth are inextricably linked. Insofar as thoughts and beliefs can impact personal experience, women who are told repeatedly to expect that birth will be grueling, difficult and painful naturally internalize these views (and the fears that result from them) over time and, thus, their birth experience could more likely be a painful one.

Challenging Our Views of Birth
If an understanding of birth as fundamentally painful and unpleasant can lead women to experience it as such, one has to wonder if this rule can be reversed. Are women who view birth as inherently comfortable -something to be embraced rather than resisted - and themselves as calm, confident and capable, less likely to have painful, difficult birth experiences? 
This idea - that one can "deprogram" the mind of the cultural mindset that childbirth must be painful - is the basic premise of one particular approach to childbirth education and "pain management:" Hypnosis for Childbirth.

The Hypnotic Mind

Remember how in Part 1 I said that my own birth experience was virtually pain-free, drug-free and without any major medical interventions? In large part, I credit hypnosis for this.

duron123 /
There are two major hypnosis programs/styles that cater to pregnant and birthing women: Hypnobirthing (a.k.a., the Mongan Method) and Hypnobabies. There are also a number of childbirth education methods that utilize components of hypnosis. I used the Hypnobabies program for my pregnancy and birth with Little Man.

I won't get into too many specifics, or compare these programs here. There are plenty of other websites that do a much better job of that than I ever could, since I have only ever fully explored the Hypnobabies approach. What I will say is this: while there have been many other instances in my life where I have stepped outside my own worldview and experience (i.e., my cultural anthropological studies, yoga and meditation, travel), nothing compares to the process I went through being pregnant with my first child. The Hypnobabies program was a significant part of my "awakening" to the very pervasive cultural ideology surrounding pregnancy and birth in America: Birth is hard. Birth is excruciating. Birth (or pregnancy) requires "management" by professionals. Birth (or pregnancy) is something best left to those who know what they are doing.

Now, of course there is a very high degree of variability from woman to woman, and even from pregnancy to pregnancy. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and what works for one person may not be ideal for another. The idea behind Hypnobabies, however, is that women can remove these cultural "givens." They can eliminate the expectation that birth is painful, that it is something to be feared.

Granted, at first I had a difficult time submitting to the "hypnotic suggestions." The idea of fully letting go and allowing someone to make mental "suggestions" to me made me highly uncomfortable. Once I got the hang of it, though, I began to relax. A lot. I would often fall asleep while listening to the hypnosis sessions. It was the most amazing, deep sleep I've ever experienced. And during childbirth? It helped me to be completely aware of everything that was going on around me, while simultaneously remaining very, very relaxed, calm, and comfortable.

Research and mainstream interest in the area of hypnosis - for childbirth, surgery, general health and beyond - is growing. From applications in brain surgery, to treatment for infertility, to pain-free childbirth and rotating breech babies, hypnosis is increasingly an option to facilitate pain management, minimize emotional distress and increase relaxation with minimal to no side effects. As general awareness of hypnosis improves, more creative uses are surfacing (i.e., improving undergraduate study habits; eliminating hot flashes in post-menopausal women).

Your Thoughts?
This, of course, is not a comprehensive discussion of hypnosis or its applications in childbirth. Rather, my point is to bring attention to the idea that pain and fear in childbirth are not a given - these reactions to birth are deeply rooted in the media, in medical practice, and in our culture as a whole.

All that being said, I'm curious to hear your thoughts. Do you think that we can mentally separate ourselves from the idea that birth is painful? Would you ever consider taking part in something that claimed to "deprogram" you of your cultural mindset regarding birth and pregnancy? If not, what would your concerns be?


  1. As a Hypnobabies Mom myself I konw that we can reprogram our minds regarding birth and pain. I had a comfortable birth with my 3rd (using Hypnobabies) and I loved it. :)

  2. EFT has been a fantastic tool to help my clients clear their fears during pregnancy and relax during labor.

  3. Thank you both for reading, and for your comments!

    @Sondra, I have not had a lot of experience with EFT, but I know people who swear by it. It seems like it could indeed be a great tool for pregnant, birthing and post-partum women not only on its own, but also in combination with other methods (like hypnosis). I'd be interested to read any studies related to EFT but have not come across any.

  4. Hello again Lauren,

    We will be linking to your blog posts on Hypnobabies Official Facebook page, and will also share your posts with our instructors as a resource for those who are considering how a hypnosis for birth program could make their experience of childbirth easier and more comfortable, and for some of them...even pain free.

    Yours in gentle birthings with Hypnobabies,


    Carole Thorpe, CHt, HCHI, HCHD, CLEC, CiHOM
    Hypnobabies® Childbirth Hypnosis, VP
    Director of PR & Marketing
    714.894.2229 (Mon-Fri, 10-4 PST)

    "Thoughts become things...choose good ones!"

  5. As someone who is going to start trying for a pregnancy here in the near future, yes, I would completely be willing to let go of the cultural beating we got that such a natural process is the scariest, most painful, and most dangerous thing we could ever do. People are looking at me as though I am crazy because Rob and I are trying to figure out how far into the Caribbean we can get before I am ready to give birth - somewhere out there! But, due to the intrinsic way pregnancy and birth are now viewed here in the States, I would prefer to be away from the money-hungry hands which would grab at my uterus. Just from talking with you and reading your blog, I know that I really want to use Hypnobabies when the time comes and am looking forward to a calm and peaceful experience!

    BTW, while working at Planned Parenthood, the physician I worked with (who delivered a baby for the first time the same year my mom was born) had it ingrained in him that "childbirth is the most dangerous thing a woman can ever do." I told him I had jumped out of a plane at 10,000 feet by myself and figured that was a little more dangerous than a process female mammals have been doing since we evolved into live birth millions of years ago. He just smiled at me and laughed, just as he did every time I talked about wanting a drug-free delivery and mentioned that I supported breastfeeding. To him, this made me an "Earth Mother".

    (Oh, and very cool that the VP of Hypnobabies is linking you to their site!)

  6. Thanks for your comments, Cory! I think a lot of people could perceive a lot of things we do as "crazy" when it comes to pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing. What I've realized - and what I try to remind myself of constantly - is that it only matters what YOU think.

    It sounds like you are trying for an unassisted "boat-birth?" ;)