Before falling pregnant, I hadn’t given too much thought to ‘how’ I wanted to give birth.
From my limited knowledge of the birth process (based largely on Rachel from Friends’ own authentic portrayal), I’d gathered that it wasn’t exactly an occasion that offered a wealth of choices or decisions (or, at least, any that I’d be making).
Instead, I was resigned to the fact that birth was just something that ‘happened’ to you; a largely random, undignified process that left you sweating on a bed whilst medical professionals seized control of both your vagina and autonomy.
Even my own cervix would be marching to its own beat, with the entire birth process hanging on its inclination to open up – something that was (again) apparently out of my control. Me, my vagina and my baby would instead be its passengers; nervously hoping it would eventually, mysteriously, reveal itself – like the entrance to Tutankhamen’s Tomb.
And if it didn’t show any signs of rolling back its stone? Or was a bit tardy in dilating? Well, then the medical professionals would crack out the big guns – speeding it up with a cocktail of magic door-opening drugs or finding another way in; abseiling in from the top.
And my role in all of this? Well, to be a spectator – a groupie that secured front row tickets to my own birth experience, just without the opportunity to be part of the actual band.
Changing My Attitude Towards Birth
Now nine months pregnant, I don’t really blame myself for having this attitude towards birth.
Given what we see on the television and in film, it’s perhaps inevitable that most of us approach birth like a removed medical procedure – one that just requires us to turn up, open our legs and hope for the best.
However, and after eventually realising that I’d have to do at least a bit of research into this whole birthing business, I discovered that there is an entirely different way to approach giving birth; an approach that encourages women to get up from their seats, grab the mic and assume centre stage at their own birthing gig.
What is Hypnobirthing?
In a nutshell, hypnobirthing is a school of thought that doesn’t view birth (that millennia old biological process) as a medicalised procedure, but instead as a natural and physiological process.
Dedicated to promoting birth as a personal rite of passage – one that women should play a proactive and leading role in – hypnobirthing aims to empower, inform and reassure ladies (and their birth partners) that ultimately this is their rodeo.
Through learning the physiology of birth, the hormones involved, the best way to let your body (quite simply) ‘get on with it’ and the cascade of choices, decisions and interventions that might come your way, women can reclaim control over the birth process and carve out their own journey.
The result? Calmer, confident and informed births – with less likelihood of fear, of feeling out of control and ultimately, fewer experiences of trauma (both physical and mental).
What Hypnobirthing Is Not
When I told people I was taking a 1:1 Katharine Graves Hypnobirthing (KG) course, their responses were all fairly predictable.
The majority of people, of course, thought I was off to be hypnotised; rendered a vegetable on a sofa, while someone spoke to me in hushed tones about widening cervixes and lengthening birth canals. Others thought it was some sort of alternative medicine; a hippy practice that would involve me swaying naked in a room, while praying to various goddesses of fertility.
At best, veteran mothers just thought it was an endearing, albeit naive and largely useless, distraction from the true gory reality of birth itself.
“Ok, but you know it won’t really be like that?” was their most common response.
However, hypnobirthing (despite its slightly deceiving name) is none of these things. It is not an alternative, earth mother like movement and nor does it project an unnecessarily idealised version of birth, that leave women vulnerable to any deviations from a wholly natural birth.
In reality, hypnobirthing – especially the Katharine Graves Hypnobirthing (KG) courses, are a practical curriculum; a chance to take the time to understand labour and birth, what role you can play in making it more manageable and learning how to assert yourself throughout; advocating for both yourself and your baby.
What Did I Learn from a Katharine Graves Hypnobirthing (KG) Course?
I’ll admit, when I signed up to take a Katharine Graves Hypnobirthing (KG) course, I only had a very vague sense of what all this would mean in practice.
I had no idea how it might impact my attitude to birth, or how it would inform the sort of birth I wanted. In fact, I was still fairly adamant that when the time came, I’d turn up at my hospital and ‘go with the flow’.
However, impact my attitude towards birth it certainly did – and in an incredibly positive way, simply by understanding the following.
How Labour Works
Our very first session with our Katharine Graves Hypnobirthing teacher, Nancy, immediately put our minds at ease. She made very clear (very quickly) that we hadn’t signed up to join a birthing cult, nor were we about to have our chakras cleansed via the magic of Zoom.
Instead, she was just here to give us all the facts, decisions and choices that came with birth, so that when the time came, we could steer the process.
For our first session, after discussing our hopes, fears and preconceptions re birth (something we re-visited at the end of our course), we moved onto the practical physiology of birth – something I found fascinating.
Although I’d regularly heard women refer to ‘contractions’ (or, ‘surges’, as many ladies prefer to call them), I realised I actually had no idea what they were, or how they worked. As far as I was concerned, surges were some mysterious black hole of pain that women disappeared into when birth began, and magically emerged from when the baby had been born.
However, it turns out that contractions are really just a very straightforward muscular process; with two sets of muscles working together to move your baby downwards and out – mystery unravelled.
In the ideal setting, these muscles are very efficient at doing their job – something we see in other mammals. However, to perform to the best of their ability, they are also dependent on another faction of the birth cavalry – hormones.
In order to progress, our bodies and muscles need a few key hormones to work their magic: oxytocin (the love hormone), endorphins, prolactin and (at the right time), adrenaline. Most importantly, oxytocin stimulates and is responsible for contractions (surges); helping to dilate the cervix and ultimately progress labour towards its end goal.
However, these hormones have their own criteria before they are willing to jump on the bandwagon (and stay put once they’ve turned up) – demanding their own rider of calmness, comfort, darkness and peace to perform.
And this is all dependent on our third band member – our nervous systems.
When referring to our nervous system(s), we’re specifically talking about our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
While one – the parasympathetic system – is responsible for helping us stay calm, feel good and (crucially) help produce oxytocin, the other is more of a labouring woman’s nightmare.
Indeed, the sympathetic nervous system instead is responsible for our ‘flight or fight’ system, pumping the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol into our system when it senses we are facing undue stress or a threat. Diverting blood to our limbs, heart and lungs (ready for a quick escape), it not only means that blood is diverted from our uterine muscles (cue painful cramping) but also inhibits the flow of oxytocin.
The result? A stalled and painful labouring experience.
The name of the game is to therefore do all we can to ensure our parasympathetic system stays in control throughout – promoting lots of lovely oxytocin and letting our muscles get to work, without being bombarded by fear or worrying.
2. Relaxation Techniques
Having learnt that a productive, straightforward and calm labour depends on staying relaxed, our next session with Nancy moved (logically) onto learning some important relaxation techniques we could use when the time came.
The Importance of Your Birthing Partner
One thing I hadn’t perhaps appreciated about the Katharine Graves Hypnobirthing (KG) course (and, in fact, any hypnobirthing course), is the emphasis it places on your birthing partner.
Normally, birthing partners (the majority of whom are dads-to-be) are dealt a bit of a raw deal. Without (seemingly) nothing to do, they are either cast as useless and naive, or, to put it bluntly, irritating.
However, hypnobirthing provides birthing partners with an important role – not only advocating for their partner, but maintaining a safe ‘cocoon’ or birthing environment for them – ensuring she stays calm, in her zone and isn’t distracted by anything outside the giving birth part.
Led by Nancy, we talked through different relaxation techniques we could do together – including visualisations, reading through empowering scripts, learning the art of ‘up breathing’ (a way of coping with surges) and physical ways a birthing partner can help relieve discomfort.
All of these visualisation scripts and audio tracks came as part of our Katharine Graves Hypnobirthing (KG) course and have been something I use daily. I listen to the guided meditations at bedtime and listen to the positive ‘birth affirmations’ during the day, normally when I’m in the shower or getting ready. My partner also reads me the scripts to help me relax and (if I pester him enough) joins me for ten minutes of ‘up breathing’ each day.
These will be tools we’ll also definitely use during labour.
3. Birthing Positions and Baby’s Position
This was another part of our Katharine Graves Hypnotherapy (KG) course that I found really interesting and helpful.
As far as I was aware, babies just floated aimlessly around the womb until it was time to exit the joint.
However, it turns out these little humans must adopt quite a specific position in order to be born – twisting, turning and angling their heads at just the right angle to ensure a successful and straightforward labour.
Part of our course was therefore learning about these various postures (including the less desirable positions a baby might adopt prior to birth) and how we might help him get into this optimum position.
Preparing For Birth
Another part of our KG course was learning how I could best prepare my body for labour. Again, this was something I’d given very little thought to. As far as I could tell, what goes in must come out – and it would happen regardless of any preparation I might make.
However, there are quite a few things you can do to prepare your body for birth. Indeed, they say that the average woman burns the same amount of calories during birth as if she ran a marathon – so it makes sense to treat this like your own long-haul race. You want to make sure you stay active, keep fit and stock up on good, energy rich snacks both before and during labour.
Additionally, and to prevent the risk of tearing, you might want to also give your vagina a little bit of support during the run up to birth. Perineum massages – although sounding like the least relaxing thing imaginable – are now widely touted as a great and comfortable way to prepare your bits for birth.
For those who find the perineum massage a bit tricky (as I did), the Aniball or Epi-No are also often recommended – working in a similar way to gently stretch, relax and prepare your vagina for birth.
How many of us assume that when we give birth, we’ll be flat on our backs – knees up and red in the face? Most, I suspect.
However, and a little ironically, this is perhaps the worst position for birth; limiting the space your pelvis has to open and expand, preventing gravity from giving the baby a little helping hand and often resulting in red-faced, exhausting pushing.
Hypnobirthing teaches women birthing positions that are more conducive to a more comfortable and natural birth – using the ‘UFO’ acronym to guide this principle (upright, forward and open). This also means that an active and mobile labour are encouraged i.e. the freedom to move around and adopt various positions.
As part of our KG course, we therefore practiced and memorised a few of these positions (with the cat looking on in vague disdain).
4. Interventions and How To Communicate with Medical Professionals
Perhaps one preconception about hypnobirthing is that it’s a little anti-establishment, particularly when it comes to medical professionals.
Thankfully, this is far from the truth and I’ve found that plenty of doctors and midwives are aware of, and onboard with, many of the main methods and teachings of hypnobirthing.
I wonder if this misunderstanding is simply due to hypnobirthing’s emphasis on unravelling just what birth interventions are (e.g. being induced, a sweep, forcep delivery) how each intervention works and a lady’s right to accept them (or not).
Indeed, the Katharine Graves Hypnobirthing course – and its teachers – don’t want to undermine caregivers in the slightest, but instead encourage women to feel confident and in control of their own births; something that can make the difference between a positive or ‘traumatic’ birth experience.
With Nancy’s support and learning all of the above, I definitely feel more confident and at ease with the birth process. I also know that even if I don’t get my ‘ideal birth’, I’ll at least ask important questions and advocate for myself enough to ensure that I feel proactively involved at each and every step.
5. The Birth Itself – The Stages of Labour
Embarrassingly, until we started our Katharine Graves Hypnotherapy (KG) course, I knew very (very) little about labour.
As far as I could tell, labour began, things got painful and a baby was eventually born. How very wrong I was.
Thanks to Nancy, we learnt about every nuanced aspect of labour – from the early ‘latent stage’, to what active labour really means and its relation to the dilation of the cervix. I now understand what the ‘transition’ stage is (and why not to panic during it) and that the second stage of labour is the only part that involves any pushing (or ‘down breathing’ if you’re using hypnobirthing).
This final session of our Katharine Graves Hypnobirthing (KG) course was the cherry on top of a fantastic four week course; one that left us not only confident, but almost excited, for the birth of our baby.
Different Types of Hypnobirthing Courses & Costs
As hypnobirthing has become ever more popular, so there’s been an explosion in the different types of courses available. From 1:1 delivery methods, to DIY online sort of affairs, each course offers a different way to interact, digest and engage with hypnobirthing.
Although the most expensive option, a 1:1 course is perhaps the best way to really get every little bit out of your hypnobirthing experience.
Via Katharine Graves Hypnobirthing, we found a local teacher (Nancy Keen, via her own company, Birthright) and decided to bite the bullet and opt for a 1:1 course (via Zoom, of course, thanks to Covid-19).
The course was 12 hours long (although, Nancy has, in reality, given us far more of her time than this) and spread across four evening sessions.
We wanted the 1:1 experience so that we felt we were truly understanding every part of hypnobirthing, would be hopefully more engaged with the process and we also appreciated that this option came with additional personal support from Nancy throughout the pregnancy and beyond (she is a regular victim of my middle of the night texts and worries).
We are so pleased we decided to take this option and have found that we have (happily) made a friend and an advocate, who we can rely on to help us make decisions throughout the pregnancy and as we head towards labour.
Group Hypnobirthing Classes
Nancy, along with KG more widely, also offer group hypnobirthing classes (currently held on Zoom during the pandemic). These are essentially the same as the 1:1 class, but are instead (of course) shared with other couples.
They are not only cheaper than individual classes, but also give you the opportunity to meet a few other expectant parents.
Perhaps the most popular, and well-known, online provider of hypnobirthing courses come via The Positive Birth Company.
Although they do offer group classes, their digital package is something I know is used by a lot of ladies – offering them the chance to get to grips with the principles of hypnobirthing in their own time, and in a cheaper and more affordable way.
Offering 6 hours of video content, these courses are perhaps less in-depth than the 1:1 course we experienced with Nancy, but do offer the chance to download relaxation tracks, birth plan templates and to connect with other expectant Mums via a Facebook group.
Digital Pack: £39.
Final Thoughts: Why Take a Katharine Graves Hypnobirthing Course?
Although some might disregard hypnobirthing as naively idealistic, or not grounded in reality, I would argue that it is perhaps the most rational, practical and useful introduction to pregnancy and labour I’ve come across yet.
Not only providing us with an education on just what the birth process entails, it’s ultimately made us feel confident in asking questions, understanding our rights as parents and has empowered us to appreciate the options and choices that lay ahead of us.
Knowledge, as they say, is power – and feeling powerful and in charge of your own birth journey can truly tip the balance between a positive and negative experience.
For this reason alone, I can say – whole heartedly – that taking a hypnobirthing course was perhaps the best thing I’ve done to prepare for the birth of my baby.