Will Meghan Markle become the next poster girl for hypnobirthing?

AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File
AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File Photo: AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File

If you've been following Meghan Markle's pregnancy journey, you might have come across recent reports she intends to use hypnobirthing when it's time for the newest royal to enter the world. Kate Middleton is apparently also a fan. But what is hypnobirthing?

Despite the name, it doesn't involve swinging pendulums, finger clicking or mind control. While hypnobirthing is centred around self-hypnosis, in simple terms this means using a range of techniques including visualization, breathing and relaxation to cope through labour.

According to the Hypnobirthing Australia website, which is one of several organisations offering hypnobirthing courses, "When you have your baby with hypnobirthing, you will not be in a trance or asleep. You will actually be in a heightened state of awareness – awake, but deeply relaxed."

Melissa Spilsted is the Director of Hypnobirthing Australia and explains what pregnant women and their partners can achieve by attending one of her courses.  

"We like to prepare parents for a positive birth," says Ms Spilsted. "We live in the best of times, so we have access to wonderful medical care should we need it. Effective childbirth education needs to incorporate education about how to achieve a more positive birth experience, whether that be natural, with medical intervention, or with Caesarean."

While remaining calm and in control throughout labour and delivery can only be a good thing, it's important to be aware strong evidence for hypnobirthing is still emerging. One large study (which looked at the results of several smaller studies) found that while women who used hypnobirthing techniques were less likely to use pain relief during labour, there was no difference in epidural use or the number of normal deliveries.

Confusingly, another study found that women who had learnt key hypnobirthing techniques did have a lower risk of caesarean section and epidural use. This was a small study though and more research is needed to confirm these impressive claims.  

But according to Dr Judith Gardiner, a GP obstetrician and spokesperson for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, keeping an eye on the bigger picture is important.

"When you're talking about preparing women for labour, anything that's going to make their experience less negative and more positive is a good thing," she says. "…It's not going to harm the baby and it's not going to harm the mum, so you're not going to lose anything by it. The main negative at this stage is the cost."

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And that's not an exaggeration. Hypnobirthing isn't currently part of mainstream antenatal classes, which means women who want to attend a course privately could end up forking out $500 or more. For women and their partners preparing for the arrival of a new family addition, which can already make a big dent in the family finances, is investing in a hypnobirthing course really worth it?

For Kelly Cardwell, 34, the answer to that question is very clear.

The birth of her first baby was a traumatic experience, and Kelly was filled with anxiety about the impending arrival of her second baby. "I knew that my mindset wasn't good. And I knew I was going to go into the pregnancy and into the labour with a negative view," she says. "I knew that something had to change."

Kelly attended a hypnobirthing course, despite the cost, and giving birth a second time around was a totally different experience. For her, knowledge was power. "The more you understand what is actually happening internally and what the contractions do and what they're there for…I could visualize what was happening," Kelly says. "And in doing so I just found "Ok this pain is happening because of this", I was just really focused on what my body was meant to be doing."

Despite admitting her labour was by no means entirely pain-free, even Kelly's care team at the hospital was surprised by how well she coped through her contractions. "I was lying down on the bed and I had music on and I had a nurse who put her hand on my stomach and she looked at my husband, and she looked at the monitor and she said 'Wow that was a really big one!'" Kelly explains.  "I didn't even flinch, I don't think I even felt it."

Kelly's experience is certainly a positive one, but until hypnobirthing becomes part of mainstream antenatal care, investing in a hypnobirthing course won't be for everyone. And not all hypnobirthing courses are created equal, so don't be afraid to ask about your hypnobirthing practitioner's credentials.

As for Meghan Markle, it remains to be seen whether she'll become hypnobirthing's biggest poster girl.