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Celebrities from Jessica Alba to Kate Middleton have supposedly used hypnosis and related techniques to prepare for labor and delivery, ease feelings of fear, and — yup — even naturally manage pain. Hypnosis during birth? Well, yes. It’s a real thing.

But, no. It’s not exactly what you might be envisioning. It’s not quite as simple as you’re getting very sleepy one minute and here’s your bundle of joy the next.

Let’s take a closer look at this method, its benefits, and how it differs from other birthing methods you might encounter.

On its own, the term hypnosis means “a procedure during which a person experiences suggested changes in sensation, perception, thought or behavior.” One particular branded version of hypnosis during the birthing process is referred to as HypnoBirthing.

While this basic idea has been around for centuries, the specific term was coined in the 1989 book HypnoBirthing: A Celebration of Life written by hypnotherapist Marie Mongan. Her ideas are influenced by early “natural birth” proponents Dr. Jonathan Dye and Dr. Grantly Dick-Read.

At its core, HypnoBirthing aims to help a woman deal with any fear or anxiety she may have around birth. It involves various relaxation and self-hypnosis techniques to help relax the body before and during labor and birth.

The idea is that when the body and mind are in a completely relaxed state, birth can happen more quickly and painlessly because the body doesn’t fight the natural process.

“With HypnoBirthing, I was able to truly empty my mind and breathe my way into birthing our baby,” shares Iradis Jordan, who chose the method for her baby’s delivery. “It allowed my body to relax to the point where any pain was dimmed out. I felt my body respond how it was meant to.”

Again, relaxation is the name of the game with HypnoBirthing. But during all the potential chaos of contractions, how can you possibly get into a Zen-like state? Well, there are various techniques to try, like controlled breathing.

Controlled breathing

The HypnoBirthing Midwife shares two such breathing techniques. In the first, you breathe deeply in through the nose and out through the nose. Breathe in to the count of four and out to the count of seven.

The second technique is similar. You follow the same deep-breath pattern, but you lengthen the inhale to the count of seven and keep the exhale to the count of seven. Breathing in this way is supposed to help trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, giving you some calming vibes.

A focus on positive thoughts and words

Focusing on positive thoughts and words is another useful technique.Instead of using the word “contraction” to describe the tightenings during labor, you might say “surge” or “wave” for a more positive spin. Another example is replacing “rupture” of the membranes with the word “release.”

Guided visualization

Other techniques include guided visualization, where you might picture something like a flower opening to help relax your body, and using music and meditation to further relaxation.

Through using these techniques, the idea is that you may give birth in a state similar to daydreaming. You may:

  • be fully aware of what’s happening to you and able to come and go out of hypnosis as you please
  • become more relaxed, keeping your body out of the fight-or-flight mode that can be induced by the unfamiliar environment of a birth room
  • be more able to manage pain and stress hormones by the release of endorphins

By controlling pain and stress hormones, the body may let go and submit fully to the task ahead.

Related: What to expect during a vaginal delivery

HypnoBirthing is also referred to as the Mongan Method. It’s considered the “original” method and involves five classes that are 2 1/2 hours long, totaling 12 hours of instruction. There are many certified HypnoBirthing instructors around the world.

The main idea with this method is that severe pain doesn’t have to be a part of labor if the body is relaxed. Participants learn different self-hypnosis and relaxation techniques, including guided imagery and breathing.

Hypnobabies is another method of using hypnosis during the birth process. It’s based on the Painless Childbirth Program, which was developed by master hypnotherapist Gerald Kein.

While similar to HypnoBirthing, this method has some key differences. It focuses on specific tactics to help with pain versus relying on simple relaxation techniques. These tactics include things like hypnotic compounding (repetition) and other “medical grade” somnambulistic (sleepwalking) hypnosis techniques.

This course is also a bit longer, involving six classes that are 3 hours each for 18 total hours of instruction.

For further reading

There are several books on the subject of using hypnosis techniques during birth, each with a slightly different methodology:

“I found the HypnoBirth[ing] program to be a really positive experience,” says Danielle Borsato, a mom who chose this delivery method. “Overall, HypnoBirthing gave me the ability to trust my body and breathe my baby down with only the help of a hot shower.”

Along with confidence in the birthing process, HypnoBirthing may:

  • Shorten labor. Specifically, hypnosis during birth may help shorten the first stage of labor. This stage involves both early and active labor, when contractions become longer, stronger, and closer together as the cervix opens.
  • Lessen the need for interventions. A 2011 review of studies showed that HypnoBirthing may help encourage a vaginal birth and women using hypnosis didn’t require as much augmentation with oxytocin. A 2015 study found that just 17 percent of HypnoBirthing moms had cesarean deliveries compared to the general 32 percent rate in the United States.
  • Naturally manage pain. If you’re looking for a med-free labor, hypnosis may help. In one 2013study, 46 out of 81 participants (51 percent) didn’t use any pain medication and reported their max pain level as just 5.8 on a 10 scale.
  • Give a feeling of control. Women in the 2013 study also reported feeling more relaxed and in control. As a result, they had less fear about labor and birth.
  • Result in healthy babies. Apgar scores, the system to evaluate babies in the minutes after birth, may be higher among babies born using HypnoBirthing techniques.
  • Help women who’ve experienced trauma. HypnoBirthing may particularly help birthing people who have experienced trauma surrounding birth or who have a general fear of labor and delivery. About 40 percent of the course focuses specifically on these issues.

Related: Everything you need to know about caring for a newborn

While all these benefits sound fantastic, the truth is that practicing HypnoBirthing or related techniques isn’t a guarantee that you’ll have an easy, pain-free labor. Let’s be honest — if it always worked that way, it would be front page news and the most popular birth method.

“My hospital birth did not go as I had planned,” explains Lili Levy. “I felt unheard and disbelieved by the medical staff . . . but I used many of the HypnoBirthing techniques and they got me through in a much calmer and informed state than I would have been otherwise.”

One of the main drawbacks of self-hypnosis during delivery, specifically Mongan’s method, is that it doesn’t necessarily prepare women for births that don’t go as planned. The coursework doesn’t include much information about pain-relief measures beyond the different techniques to relax the body. Nor does this method cover the various medical interventions parents may face.

You can certainly practice this method and plan to use it during delivery — but also think through what you’ll do if things don’t go as expected.

There are other birth methods you may encounter as you prepare for the big day.

  • Lamaze is a method that aims to help couples feel more confident in the birthing process. It focuses on pain management techniques, like breathing and massage, to help move labor along and serve as natural pain management.
  • The Bradley Method is very much focused on labor and birth being natural. People who seek this method learn different techniques for relaxation and rely heavily on a support person, like a partner, doula, or other labor coach.

Lamaze, the Bradley Method, and HypnoBirthing all aim to give birthing parents a positive birth experience. While they each focus on the breath and relaxation during labor and delivery, they’re different in other ways.

A 2105 study reveals that the Bradley Method may be more comprehensive than HypnoBirthing because it covers care during pregnancy, during childbirth, and even postpartum.

In fact, HypnoBirthing may not include much information about different complications during pregnancy, interventions during birth, or other possible dangers. Its focus is primarily on relieving fears through relaxation and hypnosis.

Both the Bradley Method and Lamaze also don’t state that labor will necessarily be painless. Instead, they focus on strategies to empower and give couples options to naturally relieve pain. With HypnoBirthing, the language is centered more around birth being painless if you release fear.

Another main difference? With Lamaze and the Bradley Method, the birth partner or coach is key. With HypnoBirthing, a support person is encouraged, but a woman can self-hypnotize. In other words, another person is not necessarily needed for success.

Related: Labor and delivery: Lamaze Method

As with most things, celebrity endorsement doesn’t mean a method is right for you. (We present to you Exhibit A: Gwyneth Paltrow and the jade egg.) But there are definitely regular, down-to-earth moms out there who tout HypnoBirthing, too.

“I would recommend HypnoBirthing to anyone who wants to be surrounded by positive affirmations, stories, and like-minded people,” explains Borsato.

If HypnoBirthing looks interesting to you, consider asking your doctor or midwife if there are classes in your area. There are also a number of resources you can find online, including The Mongan Method and Hypnobabies websites.

Even if your birth doesn’t go as you imagined it would, the tools you acquire in HypnoBirthing classes may help you well beyond pregnancy. “I would use the technique again in a heartbeat,” says Levy. “In fact, I still rely on some of the breathing techniques to get me through painful or stressful experiences.”