As often happens with a first birth, Wendy Harris didn't deliver her son quickly--she experienced 36 hours of labor. But Harris' feelings during that time were unusual: "There was this numb, tingling sensation," she recalled. "It felt like when a dentist drills your teeth and he's given you Novocain. There's a sense of pressure there, but numbness and no pain."
Harris took no drugs. Instead, when she went into labor with her son, Scott, now 13 months old, she brought along her own pain-curbing tool--self-hypnosis.
Like a growing number of Los Angeles-area women, Harris had decided to go through labor at an alternative birth center. Such home-like centers are often housed in separate hospital wings or free-standing buildings nearby, and typically do not provide anesthetics.
After studying self-hypnosis and practicing for several months, the 24-year-old Newbury Park homemaker said she and her fireman-husband, Mark, used the technique to make her labor "nearly pain-free."
"It's not for everyone," cautioned Canoga Park obstetrician Dr. Steven Freedman, who has worked with about 100 patients using self-hypnosis as a labor pain-control technique. "It won't work for people who have the attitude, 'Nothing's going to help me.' But for those who are open to it, the majority I've seen do a lot better than average during labor."
Neither the American Medical Assn. nor the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has taken policy stands for or against the use of hypnosis during childbirth, spokesmen said.
Dr. Khalil Tabsh, director of the High Risk Obstetrics program at Northridge Hospital and an associate professor at UCLA Medical School, said he has used hypnosis to help pregnant women in danger of premature labor carry to term.
"Premature labor can be brought about by psychological factors. If a patient doesn't respond to medication, hypnosis can help them to relax," Tabsh said. "It will work for pain provided the patient is receptive to hypnosis and works with a competent hypnotist for a few months before delivery. The problem is, it takes practice. It takes commitment and money. You have to be willing to put in some work on it."
Dr. Anthony Reading, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA Medical School and author of "Psychological Aspects of Pregnancy," said that while practicing psychiatry in England, he used hypnosis to treat 20 pregnant women who were "phobic" about labor.
"It reduces arousal and redirects attention away from the contraction," Reading said. "During anxiety, your sympathetic nervous system becomes aroused, and you're more prone to experience pain."
Hypnosis, he added, "is a coping skill many pregnant women would benefit from having."
The use of hypnosis during childbirth is not new, but it appears to be enjoying a revival. In the last 10 years the field has grown steadily, spawning a group of specialists who consult with expectant parents.
Certified hypnotherapist Fantasia Fairchild speaks regularly at natural childbirth classes offered by obstetrician Steven Freedman's office. Fairchild said about one-third of her practice is now devoted to expectant couples, either in group evening classes or a private eight-hour program at the couple's homes. Most of her referrals come from obstetricians, she added.
"This is not a substitute for a childbirth class," Fairchild said. "I think it's very important for all mothers to take a Bradley or Lamaze class, so they know what's happening to them and can use whatever techniques work for them."
Fairchild, who provides cassette tapes that a woman can practice with and use for self- or husband-induced hypnosis during labor, advises her clients to begin training in the fifth month, so they have ample practice with the relaxation and numbing exercises. The tapes include a deep-breathing exercise that can be played during labor to induce trance and a post-hypnotic suggestion that a woman can use to prompt hypnotic trance in the future.
For many, hypnosis is as familiar as a long freeway ride, said Dr. Sheldon Kardener, a psychiatrist and member of the clinical faculty at UCLA Medical School. "When you realize you've gone a distance without any conscious awareness--it's time to get off but you can't remember the stops along the way--that's all hypnosis is. It's an altered state of consciousness that's brought about by your own capacity to use both concentration and imagination."
It is still not understood how hypnosis relieves pain, but recent research suggests that a hypnotic trance may somehow block the message of pain before it's delivered to the brain, according to Cleveland State University psychologist Benjamin Wallace. Because the brain never receives the sensory message, people don't feel the sensation.