Sankofa Hypnobirthing founder Tracy Awere (sankofa-hypnobirthing.co.uk/ about-me) was empowered through her own pregnancy journey. Trained in hypnotherapy and hypnobirthing, Tracy started teaching both in 2014. She has since been providing her service to women and couples as they prepare for their birthing experience and beyond.
What is Hypnobirthing and what are the benefits?
Hypnobirthing is a fully comprehensive childbirth preparation course that not only educates mums-to-be about the biomechanics of birth and what will happen, but also teaches them how to mentally prepare for birth with a confident and positive mindset.
This mindset work is particularly important because, sadly, childbirth in the Western world is often portrayed as being scary and agonising. When we frequently see or hear such stories of birthing women in distress and cursing out their partners during labour, this idea is drip-fed into our minds and affects both men and women. I mention men here because, as fathers, they will also have concerns for their child and for their partner who is having the baby
When we have been exposed to those sorts of negative ideas about birth over the course of our lifetime, whether or not we are aware of it, our mind can take on the belief that birth is inherently dangerous, or excruciatingly painful, and because we’re told it’s meant to hurt, it’s far more likely to hurt!
Whilst I’m definitely not saying that childbirth is completely effortless, hypnobirthing teaches that it doesn’t have to be this harrowing, mentally scarring event that we may believe it to be. In a hypnobirthing course, expectant couples are taught exactly what the mother’s body will be doing when she is in labour and what she can do to assist in this, so that her emotional state is aiding rather than hindering the natural processes of her labouring body.
When she’s in a more calm and relaxed state, her body produces the right hormones so it can more easily do what it’s naturally made to do. So, the benefits definitely include a calmer birth experience for the mother and, therefore, the baby too.
It’s totally normal for a woman to find herself feeling anxious, or out of control, at some point during labour. But with hypnobirthing, she has tools and techniques to help calm herself down. If she has a partner who has also attended the course with her, s/he too will have learnt the techniques so s/he can give guidance and be of practical support, rather than just being a helpless bystander.
Hypnobirthing also gives couples the confidence and ability to manage any unexpected turns that may arise along the way, because as much as we talk about birth preferences and birth planning, things don’t always go according to plan. But if a birth is veering off the course the mother would have liked, again she has tools that help her to navigate that and to understand what questions she can ask, or her birth partner can ask on her behalf, so she remains involved in the decision making.
This is very important because when a mother feels more involved, this makes for a more empowering experience – which informs the emotional impact of birth, which is long lasting. You get very elderly women that will meet a pregnant woman and tell them about their birth experiences from many decades earlier. So that just goes to show, even though they may have had their children 70+ years ago, it stays with them. If it is a great experience, then, that’s fantastic. But if not, it might seem dramatic, but people can have PTSD that they carry around with them. So, feeling involved, informed, supported and confident during labour and birth increases the chances of the mother being more emotionally strong, post having the baby. It also means she has a better understanding of how to navigate the emotions that are going through her during pregnancy, labour and birth, which will aid her recovery afterwards.
Statistics show that black women are 5 times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than white women. How does hypnobirthing fit in with this narrative?
I would say it definitely can help in educating parents-to-be about their choices and treatment, which can potentially affect the birth outcome for mother and child. If a couple is expecting their first baby, it could be that they don’t yet know what they don’t know when it comes to navigating maternity care with their health care providers.
Sometimes the things that are suggested to women are done so, because they are in the hospital’s guidelines or protocols. Guidelines and protocols are not law, and they are also not individualised. One of the things we need to bear in mind is that women should receive individualised care in their pregnancies. This means care that is specific to their needs and their pregnancy, their body, their baby. Off the back of the 5-times-more statistic, National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (commonly known as NICE, but was recently trending as #notsoNICE) came up with an initiative recommending that Black and ethnic minority women should be induced at 39 weeks of pregnancy, if their baby has not been born by then. Again this is a recommendation, it is not law. There will never be a law that says any pregnant woman has to do a specific thing against her will. A mentally healthy woman who can make decisions for herself, doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to. But when you have all of this going around the news and social media, saying Black women should be induced at 39 weeks, it can be worrying and confusing.
NICE themselves acknowledge that induction of labour has a large impact on the health of women and their babies and so needs to be clearly clinically justified. So then we have to ask if a woman and her baby are both healthy and she is happy to remain pregnant, where is the clinical justification? In hypnobirthing, couples learn how to ask questions to decide what is right for them. For example, a woman can say “I understand I fall into the category that NICE has identified as being more at risk; however, you have told me that I am healthy, my baby is healthy and everything is fine. Therefore, I decline this induction but would actually like to be monitored instead. Then, if you think you see something emerging that suggests that I or my baby might be at risk, then, we can talk about it.” So I think it’s just having the knowledge that you can ask for further information to decide if that is correct for you, speaking of the suggestion of being induced.
I think understanding what your options are, that you actually have options and that you are allowed to have a voice, is important because some people just don’t speak up because they don’t know that they can. Additionally, having the involvement of a trusted birth partner helps, as having somebody on board who can also bear witness because when the mother is having her baby, especially if she is in the depths of labour, this is not a time for her to be rationalising, problem-solving and asking technical questions. She goes inwards into her ‘birthing zone’. So if she’s got an advocate, her birth partner who can look out for certain things and ask questions, this is an extra person who can keep an eye on what’s going on as, sadly, there are various different reasons for that awful 5-times statistic. It could be that the mother was complaining of pain and she is not listened to, or something else was overlooked. Whereas I think between her and her partner, if they are aware that they have the right to ask questions because it is her care, hopefully, this can help. It’s even useful for birth professionals to know that they are dealing with a couple who are informed and if they don’t have the information, they know they have the right to ask for more information. I think that, in itself, can help to change the dynamic and keep the mother abreast of all the decisions they think are best, and explaining to her why, and her agreeing or disagreeing, and together working on a different course of action if what they’re suggesting is not in line with what she wants.
What are the benefits of hypnobirthing for the child after birth?
When mothers are practising hypnobirthing, they will listen to what we call scripts. These are audio recordings similar to meditation or mindfulness recording that many will be familiar with, but these are specific to pregnancy and birth.
Expectant mums listen to these frequently throughout their pregnancy, via headphones or out loud, and women have reported that after their baby is born, they often find that they are calmed and soothed by hearing the music that accompanies the hypnobirthing scripts that she listened to in pregnancy. So if the baby has been used to hearing the mother playing these tracks, this can have a continued calming effect on them after birth.
Additionally, the very fact that a hypnobirthing mother has a regular relaxation practice that she has set aside for herself has benefits for the baby after they’re born. Her practice could consist of various things such as a light touch massage from her partner, going over visualisations and positive birth affirmations, doing her relaxing breathing and then listening to a script as she goes to sleep. Through this, she is priming her body with oxytocin which is the hormone of labour and also of love, relaxation, rest and digest, which is extremely positive as far as emotions go. So the fact that the mother has frequently had that feeling in her body throughout the pregnancy, that shapes the baby’s constitution as well.
Studies have shown that when mothers are in high-stress states throughout pregnancy, this goes on to affect their babies in infancy and throughout life actually. Without meaning to oversimplify it, whether someone is easily stressed or takes things in their stride, this trait can be determined in the womb by how much stress hormone was flooding the baby’s system versus how much calm hormone, depending on what the mother was exposed to in pregnancy. So a calmer, happier pregnancy can result in a calmer and happier person in the long run.
Can the principles of hypnobirthing be found in our African heritage/practices?
I am being approached by more black women who want to prepare for their births in this way, which I think is great because when I first started teaching in 2014, it seemed that hypnobirthing was considered the sole domain of white middle-class pregnant women. It was almost as if it wasn’t something for us as black people, either because we didn’t need it or it was not ‘our thing’. It was seen as a luxury or an unnecessary extra, an additional expense on top of everything else you need to pay for when you are expecting a baby. But I would say it is definitely something people are waking up to and realising that it’s for everybody, no matter what your ethnic background. If you don’t already feel that you have the tools to approach birth in a way that is calm, confident and informed, then hypnobirthing is definitely for you. If you have an awareness that you should consciously practice and work on your birth mindset, then, you will eventually find your way to hypnobirthing or something similar.
In terms of how its principles can be found in our African heritage, I purposely named my business Sankofa Hypnobirthing with Sankofa being from the Akan people of Ghana, which is where my family is from. Translated, it means “go back and get it” and the essential philosophy of this phrase is that we must reach back to reclaim lost wisdom in order to move forward with hope.
I feel that the idea of Sankofa can be perfectly applied to the way we birth today. In many ways, modern society has forgotten that giving birth is a natural process that, under normal circumstances, should progress smoothly and efficiently without excessive discomfort or stress on the mother or child.
As a result of this forgetting, trust in the instinctive, biological process of birth has been lost. Through hypnobirthing, mothers grow in confidence and feel empowered, knowing that they have everything they need for a calm, confident and positive birth, no matter how their babies are born. There is so much value in bringing back this wisdom and reminding ourselves of the knowledge that our ancestors had and maybe some of our living elders have. But just because of the way we have been conditioned we don’t necessarily know it, or we have forgotten it, or we don’t trust it, and that trust needs to be restored.
If hypnobirthing is helping prepare during pregnancy to labour, what things do women do that might hinder it?
I would say a big thing that counteracts is actively seeking out information on everything that can go wrong. I know it is really tempting to watch horror stories and people are often drawn to TV shows such as One Born Every Minute, as you get to see various different women having babies. But one of the things people need to bear in mind is that unless you are a birth geek like me, people probably aren’t that interested in slow gentle births, where the woman gently breathes her baby down and then happily goes home with her baby that same evening. People think “Oh that was a bit dull, nothing happened” and so the show is edited for drama. It’s edited to be heart-racing, flashing lights with paramedics bursting through the door of the hospital screaming “Make way, woman having a baby!”
So avoid things like this that feed your birth fears because like I said earlier, whether or not you are aware of it or not, all of those things have a compounding effect every time you are drip-feeding yourself something that shows this is scary; I could die; my baby could die; this could go wrong; that could go wrong. You might laugh it off and think it is just a TV show. But it sits in your subconscious, and the conscious decisions we make are all informed by things that are stored in the super hard drive of our minds, which is our subconscious. So every time we make a decision on how to respond to something, our mind has done a check back in milliseconds, referencing back to the subconscious to get a cue on how to respond. So if your subconscious is full of all of these scary stories about childbirth and everything that says it is something to be scared of, then, we go into a fear state. Essentially, our subconscious is trying to keep us safe. It means well but can get in the way sometimes.
When we are in a state of fear, we go into our sympathetic nervous system, which is freeze, fight or flight. If your body thinks you are getting ready to avoid danger what then happens is your resources are going to your major muscle groups, and your heart, your lungs getting primed to run away. As you can imagine a woman in labour is not going to run away. She doesn’t need to have her heart racing, she doesn’t need to have her thighs geared up – ready to run, because that is not what she is going to do. And because her body is in its fear response, it’s drawing resources away from where she actually needs them; namely, her digestive system to digest the food she has eaten to fuel her through labour and also her reproductive system (her womb), so she can have efficient surges (contractions).
So my top tip in terms of what not to do is don’t go seeking out birth horror stories. Also, if a woman has a particular condition that she knows is unique to her and her baby, then of course, she should seek out accurate information from a reliable, reputable source rather than defaulting to ‘Doctor Google’, which can return lots of worrying diagnoses.
So quite simply, don’t scare yourself with Google, and don’t actively seek out horrific stories and videos about birth.
Is hypnobirthing suited to all women?
I would say everybody should look into it. I understand that obviously everybody’s resources are different. Not everybody can necessarily afford to do a class with a teacher. But the great news is that there are plenty of courses offering far more accessibly priced classes. I personally offer concessionary rates for any woman who needs it. There are also some courses that offer pre-recorded online classes at a lower cost and there are also many free resources on platforms such as Instagram and YouTube. I also suggest speaking to two or three different hypnobirthing teachers before you decide who to go with, so you can get a sense of who they are, what they are like and if you think they are a good fit for you. It’s very rare for me to teach a woman or a couple who I have not spoken to first.
For more information, visit the site, here – sankofa-hypnobirthing.co.uk/the-course