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What It’s Really Like to Have a Hypnobirth

Photograph by Getty Images/Canopy

Let’s start this conversation with some truth: I didn’t actually think hypnobirthing was going to work.

It seemed too magical really. Listen to some recordings, do some mental exercises, attend a class for five sessions and voila—the promise of a pain-free and non-medicated birth awaited!

Yeah right, I thought.

So why did I even try it? One story. My best friend had one of those births you hear about but don’t tend to believe. Three hours of labor, contractions that she referred to as feeling like some “pressure” and a swift and smooth non-medicated delivery into a pool of water. Honestly, if I didn’t know her, I would’ve found it impossible to believe. Where was the screaming, the movie theatrics and the scripted pain we associate with birth? I asked her how she did it, and her answer was hypnobirthing.

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A few years later when I became pregnant, I kept coming back to that story. Could I? Should I try? I researched in my area and found a local hypnobirthing class. I figured at best, I would learn to chill out a bit and at worst, I would have the epidural birth I always expected myself to have. Right?

The general premise in my hypnobirthing course was this: We’ve been inundated with negative delivery experiences our whole lives. What we don’t hear shared are the tools of visualization and meditation that can allow a woman to access a peaceful and extraordinary birth experience. Hypnobirthing promised to provide that. Our instructor was clear that she was in no way promoting the idea that a hynobirth was a non-medicated birth or a birth that did not end in a C-section. She only wanted to give us the tools that would result in a calm birth and whatever way that meant for the safe arrival of our baby, whether that meant vaginal and non-medicated, epidural or even C-section. That single statement soothed me.

Each surge prepared me for the next, the incremental increase in strength and intensity. Everything in my body seemed loud and all I could do was listen.

So I did what every Type A attorney and soon-to-be mom would do. I did all the research and all the homework. I read every book I could get my hands on regarding natural childbirth and diligently listened to the recordings every day for the last few weeks of my pregnancy. I fell asleep every night to the soft sound of a woman who started to discuss soothing colors and their representative energies; before the first two minutes were up, I was fast asleep.

While I never even heard the whole of those talks, the recordings played in my ear buds as I snoozed through the nights. I practiced the visualizations outlined in the coursework. I watched YouTube videos only of hypnobirths and listened only to stories of women who had these unicorn births. My husband and I also enlisted the help of a doula and she attended the classes with us. We discussed the possibility of this hypno stuff working, but more so, we discussed all the other options that we were comfortable with. You know, the usual over-achiever activities. I just wanted to be prepared, in case it could work, or if it didn’t.

It was two weeks past my due date and I was still waddling around waiting for signs of contractions. Like many first-time moms will tell you, I wasn’t even sure that they had started. Did my water break when I was in the bathroom? Maybe. Were those contractions in the shower or just some stomach aches? Who could tell anymore at this stage! But after a few hours, the contractions (called “waves” or “surges” in my hypno class) were consistent and increasing. The doula advised we wait until they seemed intense, and so we did. Above all else, I just wanted to hear that woman’s voice on those hypno tracks and find a way to drift off. Headphones on, I listened to the same voice I had listened to for weeks and like always, she would start to speak and I would find myself drifting up and out. I was lulled and while the surges became more frequent and more peaked, I’d raise the volume, close my eyes, breathe out and for a moment, leave the aches of my body just briefly enough to make it through to the next one.

This technique continued while we drove to the hospital, answered questions at check in, were examined to find me dilated at four centimeters and given our delivery room. All of this was a blur for me, eyes closed walking the halls, pausing when bands around my stomach pulled up and in, contorting my shape from the inside. But somehow, it was bearable. One wave at a time, I listened to the voice as she spoke and my body would whisper when the next wave was coming in. Each time I did what anyone who has swam in the ocean would do, I would dip my head and pull myself both under and above the crashing of my body. Each surge prepared me for the next, the incremental increase in strength and intensity. Everything in my body seemed loud and all I could do was listen.

Apparently, back on planet Earth, the perspective was a bit different. I was silent through all the contractions. When one surge came on, I’d feel it and prepare. I’d put my hand out for someone to hold. I’d close my eyes and then, silence. I was off in my mind. In the cosmos. High above my own body. After the surge, like a mummy rising up, I’d open my eyes and resume conversation. Take a sip of iced water. Laugh at some joke. And when the next surge came, again, I was off. Transported. I opened my eyes once to find my older brother resting his hand on my shoulder. Later, he told me I reminded him of the poltergeist. Dreamy, right?

While it was all going along like clockwork, in one of these pauses, the doctor told me that I was stuck. For the last five hours, I was nine and a half centimeters dilated, but had yet to break over into the coveted 10 centimeters. To her and the hospital staff, I was running out of time. I had been having contractions for the last 15 hours and if it took longer, they would have to do a C-section.

Even now when I think back to the beast in me, I can recall the pulling and screaming, because each moment was clear and crisp and real.

What I wanted was more time. What the doctor suggested was drugs, specifically Pitocin to push the contractions to the next level. The doctor was confident that I could handle the push without needing an epidural for the pain. You’ve come this far, she said. Exactly, and I was delirious and exhausted and terrified that any increase in the severity of these contractions was more than I could physically bear. Already my body seemed to be crushing me, doubling me over and forcing me to fight to transport myself with each new crashing wave. As an alternative, she suggested one hundred micrograms (being the lowest dosage she gives) of Fentanyl for the pain before she administer the Pitocin. Being wary of any pain medication at this juncture, between negotiations with the doula and my doctor siblings (two in my family!), she gave me 25 micrograms. While she doubted it would do any good, the mere sight of the clear drops dripping into my IV made me think otherwise. A few moments seemed to provide an ever so slight reprieve.

Then the Pitocin kicked in and my contractions flipped on me completely. Where I was before silent and internal, the new contractions were monstrous and forced me to move all around the room. Instantly, I was an animal and felt that way, with every fiber of my stomach moving in unison to push this little man out. Unattached to equipment, I moved into any position to ease the grip that wrenched my insides. I walked, I roared, I cursed, I squatted, I pulled up on bars and crawled onto all fours. I was a beast, and the moments between each crashing, crushing tide grew shorter and shorter. There was no time to transport anymore, I was earth bound and primal. And even now when I think back to the beast in me, I can recall the pulling and screaming, because each moment was clear and crisp and real.

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Everything the books said would happen did. I felt his head and the ring of fire below (I dare you to Google it). I paused with intent and focused on this final moment. No cuts were made and no tears occurred. I breathed out and with every cell in my being pushed, and out came our son.

Did the hypnobirthing result in a pain-free birth that was void of drugs of any kind? No. Did it provide a calm technique in the face of the most unknown feelings of my life? Yes. Did it help me navigate my body in ways I never expected? Definitely. Did I feel every moment of my son’s arrival? You bet. Would I do it again the next time? Absolutely.

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