Whether you're an ordinary mum-to-be or a queen-in-waiting like Kate Middleton, giving birth can be one of the most frightening experiences a woman can go through. Which is why calming techniques favoured by a growing number of celebrities, such as Jessica Alba and Angelina Jolie, are now available to expectant local mums thanks to a dedicated midwife.
Mary McCallan (32), a mum-of-three from Carrickmore outside Omagh, is helping to deliver calm and take the fear and pain out of childbirth after becoming the first person in Northern Ireland to qualify as a natal hypnotherapy practitioner.
The Duchess of Cambridge was widely reported to have undergone the process when expecting her son with Prince William last year.
Mary, whose youngest child, Mattie, was born the day after Prince George on July 23, 2013, had trained during her pregnancy to become a practitioner in the alternative technique, after witnessing at first-hand the terrible fear that grips women giving birth, during her career as a midwife on the labour wards of Altnagelvin Hospital.
Upon seeing the incredible calmness experienced by women in her labour ward who practised hypnotherapy, Mary decided to try it for herself with the delivery of her first child Minnie, now aged four.
Overjoyed by how much it helped reduce her fear and pain, she again used it when she fell pregnant with her son Arthur (3). And having experienced its powerful effects, Mary wanted to help other women to conquer their terrible fear of giving birth.
"I've seen women suffer at childbirth and it's frustrating because you tell them to try and relax but if they don't have the ability to do it because they never learned the skills then they just can't," she says.
"For me it was really frustrating working with these ladies and seeing them screaming and out of control and it was really difficult for them to get back to a position of control or calmness when they had lost it.
"For many people just being in a hospital strikes fear into them – never mind being in labour."
Through natal hypnotherapy women learn a range of tools and techniques including visualisation, deep-breathing exercises and hypnotherapy to help them overcome their fears of giving birth.
Mary qualified as a midwife in 2008 but she had never heard of natal hypnotherapy until she came across expectant women practising it in her labour ward.
"I found it pretty amazing," she says. "Because it was quite new you could see that some people thought it was a bit wacky but the women who were using it had a totally different type of delivery – they were so calm.
"I just found it really interesting and as a midwife who has witnessed the fear first-hand in other women, and also as a woman myself who was thinking about getting pregnant, I knew it was the type of delivery I wanted."
Mary, who is married to James (33), a civil engineer, became pregnant with her first child in 2009 and bought a natal hypnotherapy CD, practising the relaxation techniques every week throughout the latter half of her pregnancy.
She admits to having some fear about giving birth but says the techniques she learned through the CD helped to put her fear into perspective.
This was really put to the test when at 37 weeks she found herself facing the prospect of an emergency Caesarean when her blood pressure became dangerously high.
"My blood pressure was through the roof and there was a bit of an emergency; they were going to take me to the theatre and that petrified me," she says.
"Then they decided to induce me and I was just so relieved as that was what I wanted. It wasn't horrendous at all and I was able to stay in control and make rational decisions.
"I had no pain relief until near the end when I got some gas and air.
"It was a really good experience for me and really good to be able to remain in control in that pressurised situation.
"I got pregnant again with Arthur quite soon after and practised natal hypnotherapy again and had the most amazing water birth.
"You just learn to relax all your muscles and when you are relaxed the pain doesn't feel as bad as it does when you are tense.
"It trains you to be able to relax in any environment and you learn how to use your deep breathing so that when you need it during a contraction it becomes automatic.
"It was just like a light switch for me, the automatic response of breathing and relaxing to the pain.
"I can't say it's not painful or challenging but I never felt that I was going to lose control and I knew there would be an end to the contraction after about 30 seconds and I would get relief."
Mary feels that the techniques she now teaches throughout workshops and one-to-one sessions can help empower women and give them control so that their fear doesn't take over and spoil what should be one of the most special moments in their lives.
"Because of the fear, the pregnancy can become about the labour and not about the baby which is sad but very true," she says.
"With natal hypnotherapy women can focus on the joy of becoming a mum and the little baby they will have at the end of the pregnancy.
"For women who learn the techniques, by the time they get to the birth their whole outlook has changed and they are starting to feel excited instead of scared."
With the Audit Office reporting this week that Northern Ireland has the highest rates of Caesarean births in the UK, Mary has no doubt that the numbers could be drastically reduced if more women had access to learning natal hypnotherapy techniques.
"It's been proven that fear can significantly increase the amount of pain people feel," she says, "so feeling relaxed and calm in the delivery room reduces the need for interventions and drugs, helping with the delivery of a calm baby and even decreasing the risk of post natal depression and, I've no doubt, the number of Caesarians."
How you can try it too ...
- While the hypnotherapy practised by Mary is now widely used in the Western Trust area, Mary has found that women in other parts of the province still aren’t aware that it is available to them
- For this reason she is bringing her workshops to Belfast and relaxation classes to Hillsborough in Co Down
- Her full day workshops will be held in the Namaste Yoga and Wellness Centre on the Ormeau Road on June 14 and 28, when she will be offering women a deeper understanding of how natal hypnotherapy works and how fear can affect the birth process. The classes cost £75 per couple
- Also this month she will be running her relaxation hour for the next three Saturdays in |Azora Health Shop in |Hillsborough
- To register go to www.marymcallanbirthingmatters.com
So what are the benefits ... ?
Clinical research on hypnosis has shown it can help women giving birth in the following ways:
- Shorter labours
- Less medication needed
- Less reported pain
- More frequent spontaneous delivery
- Reduced post natal depression
- Better sleep
- Less physical discomfort before, during and after birth
- Calmer baby
- Calmer partner and support team
- Easier breastfeeding
- Increased confidence
- Increased bonding with the child