From the outside, it would appear the birth of Ashley Desson-Demetriadis's first child was a chaotic experience.
The Oakville, Ont., resident's plans for a home birth with a midwife were derailed when the baby's heart rate dropped and she was rushed to hospital.
But because Ms. Desson-Demetriadis, 25, was versed in a form of self-hypnosis geared to birthing moms, she says she was able to close her eyes and keep the complications at bay. A very healthy baby Noah arrived quickly, with the help of vacuum assistance.
"If you ask me, I say it was great. Fantastic," the interior designer says of the February birth. "As everything turned south, I don't feel like I experienced it. I feel like I witnessed it."
Forget Lamaze and its offspring. The latest in childbirth support is all about benign mind control. It's called hypnobirthing - and it has nothing to do with men in tuxedos waving pocket watches.
In the past 10 years, as hypnotherapy has grown in popularity for treatments such as smoking cessation, the practice has started inching into the mainstream. As Ms. Desson-Demetriadis's Hamilton-based instructor, Lara Stewart-Panko puts it, she's hearing a lot less "hypno what?"
Ms. Stewart-Panko teaches a trademarked technique called HypnoBirthing, created by a New Hampshire hypnotist, Marie Mongan, whose first client was her own pregnant daughter.
Others teach variations on the technique, such as Toronto hypnotist Shawn Gallagher, an associate with the Ontario Hypnosis Centre, who calls her course Hypnosis for Childbirth. The centre also trains hypnotherapists in the specialty - about 20 certified practitioners a year since 2002.
The underlying philosophy of hypnobirthing suggests that the more tense and afraid the mother is, the more pain she will feel; so controlling stress and fear are the starting
point to a more comfortable experience.
Practitioners teach moms-to-be how to close their eyes, breathe deeply and sink into a deep meditative state, often with the help of their partners, who can offer a physical cue such as a hand on the shoulder to initiate the hypnosis. Visualization methods are also used, as are tips on how to manage pain, especially during contractions, which the hypnobirthing community calls "waves" or "surges."
Last weekend, Ms. Gallagher had students hold their hands in buckets of ice water to learn how to numb pain using positive affirmations. Another goal is to shorten the time spent in active labour. Many of the mothers she has trained in the past 10 years happily report short labours - about 4 1/2 hours seems to be the norm, Ms. Gallagher says.
Still, while Ms. Gallagher is encouraged by the interest in her practice and in hypnosis in general, she is careful to explain that self-hypnosis may not be for everyone.
"Some people are naturally talented at it, but there are a range of responses," she says, adding that couples looking for courses should be wary of anyone who promises a completely pain-free experience.
Ms. Desson-Demetriadis was intrigued when a friend told her about using the technique. She was looking for an alternative to the gruesome, painful birth stories she was hearing from friends and family.
While the practice is a form of natural childbirth aimed at steering expectant moms away from rising numbers of induced births, epidurals and cesarean sections, hypnotherapists are not all vehemently opposed to these practices.
It's not an either-or choice, says Janice Daigle, a doula and hypnobirthing practitioner in Richibucto, N.B.Ms. Daigle uses the analogy of a baseball team: A woman about to give birth needs everyone on her bench, she says. Her starting player may be hypnobirthing, but she's also got to have doctors, nurses, the epidural and the cesarean section on her team. Hypnobirthing can help her deal with the worst of it.
Practitioners say they are starting to receive referrals from obstetricians and nurses. And some doctors and nurses are enrolling themselves.
Ms. Daigle currently has five doctors enrolled in her course. One Montreal medical resident, Marie (who asked that her name not be used because she wasn't offering her professional opinion), says she's taking a hypnobirthing class to balance her medical knowledge.
"I'm a rational person. It's really simple," says Marie, 27. " It gives me more tools. I don't want to be passive."
Even women who know their pregnancies are high-risk are turning to the practice.
Oakville mother Nancy Ortenburg, 38, choose hypnobirthing for her second birth after her first baby was stillborn in a very difficult labour.
"I was hysterical with pain," she says. "I thought, 'There has to be a better way.' "
When her second daughter started to arrive prematurely in January, Ms. Ortenburg and her husband rushed to hospital in Oakville, but there was no neonatal intensive care unit there. If Ms. Ortenburg could hold on until the next morning, there would be room for her baby at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
She credits hypnobirthing with slowing her contractions. "It got me through 28 hours," she says. When mom and baby were ready, it took only five pushes for baby Charlotte to appear. While she did need a pain reliever near the end, Ms. Ortenburg feels that hypnobirthing helped her and her husband "make the best we could have out of the situation at hand."