What is visualisation?
A technique that’s often used by athletes before a big game or race, visualisation involves vividly imagining an event before it occurs, and picturing it going well.
“Using visualisation or guided imagery for labour is like running a dress rehearsal in your mind,” explains Maggie Howell, clinical hypnotherapist and author of a range of natal hypnotherapy CDs. “You experience your perfect birth over and over again in your mind. Once the actual birth begins, because the brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s imagined and what’s real, your body is familiar and comfortable with the rehearsed responses.”
What techniques are involved?
With a larger visualisation of picturing your birth going smoothly and imagining how you want your body to respond, there are smaller, specific visualisations that can make it easier to cope with contractions.
A common visualisation is to think of contractions as an ocean wave, where you can feel the energy building in your body, peaking at the top and then tumbling and crashing to shore as the pain subsides. Some women, meanwhile, prefer to count themselves up and down a hill, or steps for each contraction. It’s all about what works for you.
How does this work?
One of the ways visualisation works is by helping you to relax your body and break the fear-tension cycle that can make labour difficult.
“By using visualisation over and over again, you’re preparing your mind to give your body better instructions,” says Maggie. “And more importantly, you’re learning how to relax you body so that it works more effectively in labour.”
When you are relaxed, your breathing is rhythmical. “If your body is limp and relaxed, the uterus has no resistance or tension from the surrounding muscles, making contractions more comfortable,” says Maggie.
“Under the influence of focused hypnotic visualisations, some of the changes that happen on the day of labour can be encouraged to occur more easily, and discomfort may be reduced,” agrees obstetrician Dr Yehudi Gordan, author of Birth and Beyond. “Looking into your body and imagining your ligaments, muscles and tissues gently stretching and opening may encourage your baby’s smooth descent.”
Where’s the proof?
Some research shows that using hypnosis – of which guided visualisation us a large part – results in a reduction of perceived pain, shorter labours, reduced use of medication, higher Apgar scores (a measurement of the baby’s wellbeing at birth) and reduced surgical delivery.
When should I use visualisation?
In preparation for birth
“To suddenly relax at the midwife’s command when in the throes of labour is very difficult,” says Maggie. “But if you’ve practised in advance, you’ll know how to relax. For some women, waves crashing and petals opening visualisations don’t work. So, by practising when you’re pregnant, you’re more likely to come up with your own images and feelings connected to the visualisation that will work for you.”
Visualisation during labour is supposed to detract from the discomfort of contractions by helping you tune in to a different part of your brain. “All pain in the body is only registered once it hits the brain,” says Maggie. “Visualisation helps you disassociate yourself from the part of the brain that registers pain.”