For many women, it’s one of the most anxious, painful, and sometimes traumatic events they have to go through - but a Co Tyrone midwife is on a mission to help mums-to-be regain control over their childbirth experiences.
Thirty-two-year-old Mary McCallan - who has three children - is Northern Ireland’s only natal hypnotherapy practitioner, a special technique which empowers women by equipping them with skills which can help them to prepare mentally, emotionally and physically for giving birth.
The result is less medical intervention, lower levels of pain and an increased satisfaction with the birth experience - and it’s believed that the Duchess of Cambridge even practised it to prepare for the birth of her son Prince George.
Now, Mary is set to bring her classes and workshops to Belfast and other parts of the Province, following their success in her native West of the Bann.
She first enjoyed the benefits of hypnotherapy in preparation for birth four years ago, when she had the her eldest child, Minnie.
She had decided to give the alternative therapy a try after seeing first-hand the calmness of some of the women who came into her care in Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry, where she is a midwife.
These ladies had undergone hypnotherapy, and Mary says that by the time they came in to hospital, they were “well established in their labour and relaxed.”
Impressed, Mary decided to try the method herself when she fell pregnant for the first time.
“I was quite sceptical - I had never heard of it when I was doing my midwifery training, but as I saw it more and more, I thought, ‘if I ever get pregnant, that would be the way I want to labour.’ Because of my schedule I didn’t get to go to any antenatal classes, and a friend who had used hypnotherapy lent me her CDs. I listened to them throughout my pregnancy.”
Mary, who is also mum to three-year-old Arthur and nine-month-old Mattie, explains that the basic premise of natal hypnotherapy is “removing the fear of labour”, as well as teaching women “how to really relax your body at will, so than when you feel that sensation of a contraction you are able to relax.”
She adds: “It conditions your mind to be able to continue your deep breathing in times of stress as well.”
When she reached 37 weeks, problems arose. “My blood pressure went through the roof and I had protein in my urine,” she recalls.
Mary was taken to hospital and her blood pressure continued to soar. Staff told her she would have to have an emergency induction.
“In the situation I was really able to stay calm and in control,” she says, recounting how she remembered the breathing techniques she had learnt from the CDs.
Despite her admission that what followed was “no walk in the park”, Mary went on to deliver naturally after a three hour labour, relying on just gas and air as pain relief.
“I felt that I was able to stay calm and make rational decisions,” she says. “I had the physiological knowledge and I knew what was going to happen, and it sounds crazy but it was like a light switch went on as soon as I started to contract. It was like my body knew what to do, and that’s what the CDs do - they condition your mind.”
Mary fell pregnant again quite soon after having her daughter, and with little second child Arthur, enjoyed “the most amazing water birth.”
When she returned to work, she began to notice even more how many women were being admitted for labour and were “terrified” at the prospect.
“Right from when they felt the first twinges they were nearly paralysed with fear,” she says.
“That fear causes tension, and tension causes an increased sensation of pain. So they were finding it difficult to cope at those very early stages and were devastated when we said they were just beginning to labour, and it would be best if they went home.
“But that tends to be very difficult when you are in that cycle and thinking, ‘I have maybe another 24 hours of this’ - it just exacerbates the whole thing. So I was just identifying that this was a real problem, and during labour I was saying to the ladies to try and relax, and they literally aren’t able to get to that level of relaxation.
“But I was able to think back to my experience of labour and remember how to do it.”
Mary realised that she could help other women share the more positive experience she had had, and so began to look further into natal hypnotherapy, which was actually founded by a woman named Maggie Howell, and is accredited by the Royal College of Midwives.
She goes on: “It is almost the UK equivalent to the American hypno-birthing. The classes that I am trained to deliver cover the whole emotional and physiological process of childbirth, really, and teach you how to use relaxation as methods of pain relief. With a lot of antenatal classes, on the first night you learn about the drug options that are available - and then it is almost a case of, by the by, don’t forget to practise your breathing!”
Mary’s aim is to reverse this approach to labour; she also encourages the men to be more included and enjoy a supportive role, free from any fear that they might be doing or saying the wrong thing.
“Feedback I received from partners who have come has been surprising and so positive,” she reveals.
“They said they actually felt confident enough to really be a proper support to their partner. During the classes we do a wee exercise where the man and woman have a whole pile of cards of the things that will happen in labour, and they have to put them in order of how they think will happen. It’s just getting them to work together and talk about what might happen.”
Couples also write down their fears about labour and then participate in a relaxation session focusing on those fears, adds Mary.
And she admits the feedback she has received from the women themselves has been “amazing”.
The hypnotherapy practised by Mary is used in the Western Health Trust area, but the Tyrone woman felt it was time to give mums in the rest of the Province the opportunity of its benefits.
Her one-hour class kicked off in Azora Health & Wholefoods in Hillsborough last Saturday, and will continue to run every Saturday for the rest of this month.
Her two-day workshop, which covers natural pain relief and positive birth preparation, will take place in the Namaste Yoga Centre on the Ormeau Road on June 14 and 28.