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Parenting: Growing in Good Health

When the Pendulum Swings

By Naomi Mendelsohn

"We actually de-hypnotize them from obstacles that they have been taught. Women have centuries of memory already programmed in their bodies. We are only teaching them to use their natural birthing instincts."

When Marie Mongan gave birth to her first child over 40 years ago, she refused to let her doctor anesthetize her.

"I wanted a totally natural birth," says Mongan. "My doctor went along with me because he never thought I'd be able to do it."

Mongan's doctor thought she was crazy. At that time, most women were given general anesthesia to combat the pain of birth. But Mongan saw plenty of reasons to be reassured, and most of them lived in the world around her. For many cultures and most of the world's living creatures, birth is a natural process that doesn't involve "medical" intervention.

"I used to hear my mother and her friends talk about birth, about horrific birthing stories including my own," says Mongan. "Instead of being afraid, there was something inside me that said my babies are not going to be born this way."

But Mongan did have some help. When it came time for her to deliver, she got sleepy, very, very sleepy.


Mongan is the founder and creator of HypnoBirthing, a concept based on the work of Dr. Grantly Dick-Read, an early 20th century British obstetrician and a pioneer of natural childbirth.

"Our society has taken birth and medicalized it so that the mainstream is terrified of birthing," explains Mongan, a certified hypnotherapist, hypnoanasthesiologist and instructor of hypnotherapy. "For first-time moms who are terrified of birthing, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more terrified they become, the more tense their bodies are. They end up not progressing in labor."

This stalling in labor can be easily counteracted with hypnosis. Through a series of classes, Mongan and other trained hypnobirthing counselors help couples better understand the physiological process of birth and, in turn, help them come to terms with their fear.

Swinging pendulums aside

The hypnosis itself is the easy part, understanding and identifying the cause of fear is not so easy.

"We actually de-hypnotize women from obstacles that they have been taught," explains Mongan. "Women have centuries of memory already programmed in their bodies. We are only teaching them to use their natural birthing instincts."

Because women's bodies are built to give birth, Mongan says, there is little to fear. The uterine muscles are designed to work — and work well — during birth. The fear causes pain and tension.

"Pain is the watchdog of the medical community," says Mongan. "It's there to tell us when something is wrong. And that begs the question: What's wrong with labor?"

According to Mongan, the fear and the pain are basically all in our heads. But hypnobirthing works because it attacks the problem from both sides — first you ease the fear of birth, then you learn to put yourself in a deep state of relaxation to counteract the pain.

"We teach them to eliminate fear through relaxation," says Mongan. "And the result is an easier, more comfortable birthing. The body works just as it does for everything else."

All-natural, drug-free medicine

Hypnobirthing may be a far cry from penicillin, but many authorities are giving this procedure their stamp of approval.

"I have an open mind about it," says Julian Parer, M.D., Director of perinatal medicine and genetics and professor of obstetrics at University of California, San Francisco. "I think clearly there are people who think it does some good, but it is one of these alternative things that may not have been given proper trial yet. It has to be studied using the scientific method, it can't just be cheered along as the latest thing."

One study published in 1990 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology shows that women who used hypnosis to give birth reported reduced pain, shorter births, shorter labor and less medication. In addition, these women showed lower rates of post-partum depression than women in the control group.

While hypnobirthing has not yet crossed Dr. Parer's path, he has witnessed a variety of "alternative" birthing methods including yoga, doulas, waterbirth and even acupuncture. And, according to Dr. Parer, if something makes a patient feel good and it doesn't get in the way, it's just fine with him.

"All of our mothers have specific requirements and desires about the conduct of their labor and delivery," says Dr. Parer. "And we attempt to accommodate them as best as we can."

When hard-pressed to describe any emergency that hypnosis might cause, Dr. Parer cites a key tenant of all medical practice.

"If a patient was unresponsive and not making logical decisions, we'd do what we normally do," he says. "Make a rapid clinical decision about what is best for mother and baby and do what you think is best. There are no written rules."

Personal touch

While the medical community examines the clinical benefits of hypnobirthing, Mongan herself has been reaping the rewards. Her grandson, Kyle, was the first official "hypnobirthing" baby. Eight of her other grandchildren were born in the same manner. Mongan developed the official program in 1989 when her daughter became pregnant.

But what started as a family business has grown by leaps and bounds. In just ten years since developing the program, Mongan has trained over 400 birth practitioners throughout the world in the ways of hypnobirthing. A Dateline feature in September prompted a barrage of inquiries. In the four days following the segment, Mongan received over 5000 calls..

Mongan, however, doesn't take full credit for the success of hypnobirthing. This is a point that she specifically emphasizes and in which she takes a certain amount of pride.

"We do nothing in the way of advertising," says Mongan. "This growing interest is all because women are calling their caregivers and saying that they want to do hypnobirthing. We are giving them the means to have babies without pain."

Naomi Mendelsohn is a content editor at savvyHEALTH.com.

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