Jan Elliott, 35, had great misgivings about the pain of labour and giving birth. She had waited 10 years to become pregnant and though it was such a wanted pregnancy she had “seen and heard so much about childbirth – pictures of women screaming – that I was afraid”
But her fears were overcome with lessons on hypnosis designed by a gynaecologist for expectant mothers.
From her 26th week she attended weekly sessions with other pregnant women. The aim of the two-hour lessons was to instil a sense of calm about the forthcoming birth, reducing the fear of labour, and to teach the women how to use self-hypnosis as a form of natural pain relief.
Under hypnosis Jan Elliott was told she would enjoy an easy, pain-free birth. During self-hypnosis she learned how to induce a deep state of relaxation and reach an “anaesthetic” state – a technique put to the test prior to labour.
“Under hypnosis the suggestion was put to us that we were dangling our feet in freezing cold water – we were then taken further and further into the water until it reached the chest. I actually felt the coldness of the water rising up my body. The idea is that in labour you recall these sensations so that the bottom half of your body becomes “frozen” – unable to feel the pain of contractions,” she said.
She put her skill into practice in the delivery room at Whipps Cross Hospital, east London, at the start of her labour last November. “Although my labour lasted 15 hours I can honestly say that I remember no pain. I had no chemical pain relief until the last hour.
“At the hypnosis sessions it was suggested that my husband would be able to send me deeper into hypnosis if he stroked my arm and said certain words. During labour he began doing this and it worked. I felt myself going into a deeper state of relaxation and although I was aware of what was going on, the sense of pain was dulled.”
Mrs Elliott gave birth to a daughter, Grace, who weighed 6lb 8oz. “After the birth I had to be given an Anti D serum injection – I put myself into hypnosis and although the nurse told me it would be painful because of the size of the needle I did not feel anything.”
Jan Elliott is one of 150 women to have been trained in the technique of hypnosis during pregnancy by Dr Gowri Motha, a gynaecologist who studied in India and works part-time as a clinical assistant in the obstetric department of Whipps Cross, where she has been instrumental in involving midwives in alternative childbirth techniques.
She came to Britain in 1981 and two years ago opened the Jeyrani Health Centre in South Woodford, Essex, offering alternative therapies tailored for women expecting babies, and those with gynaecological and infertility problems.
I joined Dr Motha and three pregnant women during their first session of hypnosis. None of us had been “hypnotised” before, and some of the group admitted that all they knew about hypnosis was “showbiz”, when people are apparently forced to perform foolish acts in front of an audience.
We were taken into a comfortable back room in Dr Motha’s clinic, filled with the sweet fragrance of basil and frankincense. “The fragrance has cleansing properties. It is also relaxing,” Says Dr Motha. We were asked to remove our shoes at the door and find a comfortable place to sit or lie. A large mattress took up one corner of the room, and giant squashy floor cushions provided the rest of the seating.
Dr Motha told us that hypnosis in childbirth can significantly reduce the length of labour: “Very few of our first-time mothers have labours lasting longer than 12 hours, unless their babies are very large. On average it lasts between six and eight hours. For second-time mothers labour lasts on average four hours.”
We began with a series of classic relaxation exercises – tightening and then relaxing muscles throughout the body. Then the mothers-to-be were told to focus on a point in the ceiling and close their eyes.
Dr Motha’s words were soothing. We were taken in stages, by mental images of lawned terraces leading down to a beautiful garden, apparently into a state of hypnosis. I remember feeling a deep sense of calm. It was very relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable.
Dr Motha says her philosophy is that women should have gentler births than occur now in Western hospitals. “I firmly believe today women have so much information about childbirth, they see too many unpleasant things on television, that there is all this interference with the primitive function of birthing and the way women give birth. There is too much blatant exposure.
“All this can add up to fear of childbirth. And if you fear the coming pain then it is going to be much worse. If you look forward to it, the whole thing can be a lot better. Once a woman is in a nicely hypnotised state, a state of somnambulism, suggestions made to her are readily taken on board.
“Although no one knows how hypnosis really works, it is a relaxed state of mind – the body and brain sleep but the mind is alert. Hypnosis bypasses the critical faculty, something attained only when the mind is relaxed, so that if something hot or cold is placed on your hand at the time you are not aware of it. I test this with the women by pinching their hands – they are unaware they are being pinched and feel no pain.”
Although she believes Britain has an excellent maternity service, “there are gaps that need to be filled,” she says.
“The mind is so very important in the control of our bodily functions – sometimes we develop blocks in our systems, but thanks to Eastern forms of medicine we can remove some of these blocks.
“With hypnoanalysis I can take some receptive women back to find out whether they had a bad birth themselves, which may be the cause of some of their fear and panic. If they can confront their fears in a different way then they are more easily overcome.”
“It has been scientifically proven that hypnosis works – scanning shows there is an increase in neuro-hormones, which concentrate when the person is feeling happy or good about themselves. And I have my own evidence – 150 women have been through the pregnancy hypnosis programme and every one of them has said she got something good out of it,” she says.
It is important to have lessons early in pregnancy, so that hypnosis can be put into practice well before labour begins.
“Words matter – for example some midwives come in and ask a woman: “How’s the pain?”, which brings back the idea that labour is painful. I remind the midwives to use words like contractions rather than pain,” says Dr Motha.
She tells the woman in her class: “Forget about what’s happening below the waist – just let your body get on with it.”
The Independent, 23 January 1990