If, as it's been reported, Kate Middleton is using hypnobirthing to usher in the royal baby, her delivery scene might look something like this: The Duchess of Cambridge rests languidly, her eyes closed as if in a peaceful slumber. Every so often, on experiencing a "surge," (the hypnobirthing term for contractions), she'll breathe along with it, as if being lifted by an ocean wave. Gentle music plays while she relaxes further, visualizing herself cradled in the misty hues of a rainbow or her hand gloved in endorphins (good-feeling, pain-numbing hormones) activated by Prince William's gentle strokes of her arm. Gracefully, she breathes - not pushes - a calm and healthy baby through her body.
It's a far cry from the way childbirth is often portrayed on TV and in movies, where a writhing-in-pain woman-turned-demon excoriates her petrified husband for doing this horrific thing to her.
Does it have to be so bad? As a young woman, Marie "Micky" Mongan felt sure there was a better way. "Babies didn't need to come into the world in pain, and their mothers didn't need to suffer as they did," says Mongan, who founded HypnoBirthing - The Mongan Method nearly 25 years ago after helping her daughter and two of her daughter's friends replicate her childbirth experience. "I had four children without a smidgen of pain," says Mongan, now 80. "I'm not unusual," she says. "I'm a woman."
And that's the starting point for her method, which relies on deep relaxation and powerful affirmations to promise not a pain-free delivery but an easier one. "Our women trust birth. They trust their bodies," she says. "They've been educated to understand it."
HypnoBirthing experts say it works by shutting down the so-called fight-or-flight response. If a woman heads into labor in fear, her muscles clench, blocking needed blood flow to the birthing muscles. As the baby moves along the birth canal, that tightness creates pain, which begets fear, and the cycle continues.
"What we're saying is: 'Mom, stop mentally trying to process this, and just relax, and let it happen.' And that is what happens. The body opens, and the baby is born the way nature created," Mongan says. "Many of our babies don't even cry when they come into the world, because they haven't experienced birth trauma," and are more content as a result, she says.
The Cleveland Clinic is teaching expectant mothers Mongan's technique at its Hillcrest Hospital and will be offering classes at its Fairview Hospital - both in Ohio - in October. "We have been overwhelmed with calls this past year," says Rebecca Starck, Cleveland Clinic chair of regional obstetrics and gynecology. In an e-mail, Starck writes that the method "teaches you that in the absence of fear and tension, severe discomfort does not have to be a natural accompaniment of the birthing process," and, like other childbirth techniques such as water therapy or Lamaze, it can help with pain management.
She adds that the calmness of babies born this way has been ascribed to lower stress hormones as well as the common post-delivery practice of "kangaroo care," in which the newborn is held against the mother's chest, with skin touching skin. "Many people think it is 'healthier' for the baby to cry after birth. However, the transition to the world outside of the womb does not require crying, and a quiet transition is perfectly fine," Starck says.
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As the name implies, hypnobirthing uses hypnosis. For clarification, it's not voodoo or mind control, but a technique to bring about a deeply relaxed state in which the conscious mind gives way to the subconscious mind, says Lori Nicholson, a Bethesda, Md.-based certified hypnotist and HypnoBirthing practitioner, fertility consultant and infant massage instructor. If you've ever zoned out in front of the TV or on your morning commute, you've been in a hypnotic state, she says.
That is to say you're aware and awake but operating on a less-conscious level. A trained practitioner can access this state to reinforce positive messages and undo fears.
Colin Christopher, a hypnotist in Edmonton, Canada employs hypnobirthing to help women manage the whole pregnancy process, from nausea and stress, to post-partum depression. To prepare for the delivery, he'll try to shift their thinking about the experience with messages like, "You're going to be calm," and "Things are going to go well for you."
For her part, Nicholson guarded her pregnancy with positive thinking, wearing a large button that read: "PLEASE only happy birth stories ... My baby is listening." As she says, "Our bodies follow our thoughts." So, a relaxed mindset can help a woman achieve an optimal physical state for childbirth.
Nicholson teaches her clients the visualizations and breathing (roughly four counts on an inhale and eight counts on an exhale create "calm breathing") they can use to feel relaxed and confident whether it's delivery day or an hour in traffic. "These tools and techniques we teach are life skills," she says.
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For Laine Douglas, 27, of Centreville, Va., Nicholson's teaching helped her relax, as she visualized her cervix as a lotus flower gradually opening for her newborn daughter. That and a hypnotic CD kept her calm for the first few hours of labor. But those last two hours? "I turned into a screaming banchee," she says. She delivered at a birth center in Chantilly, Va., where "they had a canopy bed, and thank God the canopy was strong enough, because I was hanging from it."
She notes, however, that her distress spiked whenever she focused on the pain, and that her partner's coaching helped her calm down. "We've practiced this," he would tell her. "This is what we've been waiting for, and once this is over, she'll be here."
Women can also celebrate their own arrival, in a sense. "A mother's being born every time a baby's being born," Nicholson says. "It's a very special rite of passage."