April 30, 2010— -- In Marie Mongan's day, child birth meant a sterile, medicalized birth with drugs, and if you happened to be awake, lots of painful pushing.
"Most women were totally anesthetized and out cold, and their babies were taken from them with forceps, except for the very few who didn't make it to the hospital and had them by the side of the road," said Mongan, now 77.
So Mongan, then a young New Hampshire English teacher, devised her own way to circumvent the system when she had her four children in the late 1950s and 1960s.
She practiced a form of self-hypnosis, relaxing and imagining a calm birth, one that was painless.
Today, the her method has a registered trademark -- HypnoBirthing -- and women in 34 countries, including celebrity mothers like Jessica Alba, Giselle Bundschen, Pamela Anderson, and "ER's" Noah Wyle's wife Tracy, have learned how to put mind over matter.
Actress Tiffani Thiessen of television's "Saved By the Bell" and "90210" has also just announced she will prepare for a HypnoBirth.
"We are very conscious of the mind-body connection and any approaches that can reduce the need for medication are a good thing," said Dr. Tracy Gaudet, an obstetrician and executive director of Duke University's Center for Integrative Medicine.
"We use hypnosis for all sorts of things," she said. "But it has kind of a PR issue and a bad identity with a lot of misperceptions around someone controlling the mind. But once patients and physicians are given accurate information and they work hand in hand, these are very powerful approaches."
"There's a calmness and not as much fuss," said Mongan. "That's the way babies are meant to come into the world."
No one held a swinging pocket watch above Mongan or her younger protégés -- rather they used deep relaxation, breathing and self-hypnosis techniques to make labor and childbirth a serene event.
The laboring woman is told not to push, thereby tensing muscles, but to "breathe down the baby," working with her own body's contractions.
"I always believed that it didn't make sense that it had to be painful," said Mongan. "It's a physiological law that all muscles in the body work unless there is something wrong. What could be wrong with procreation of the species?"
What first gave her the idea that the brain could control the birthing process was when she was a child, watching a stray cat in the midst of labor.
"A dog came into the yard and the cat's labor shut down," said Mongan. "She took the two babies and ran away and then took the others and ran away. Then she had two more."
Hypnotherapist Grandfather Helped Birth
Katie Drake, a 27-year-old singer from Ocala, Fla., is familiar with the power of the mind. Her grandfather, a hypnotherapist who works with the terminally ill to ease their chronic pain, prepared her for the birth of her now 15-year-old son with a tape and visualization techniques.
At its worst, labor pains were like a "bad period," she said.
Due in September with her second child, Drake is being trained by Mongan. One of the exercises has the woman imagine each color of rainbow and associate it with relaxing different parts of the body.
Drake relaxes so much that she doesn't remember the middle portion of Mongan's tape.
"It's not a magic pill," Drake said. "You have to decide early in your pregnancy and start working out like a marathon for the brain."
"It's not so much to escape your birth and go into la, la land, but to deeply connect with what your body is doing," she said. "You need to offset the awake-alert state you are in."
For this baby, she is looking forward to the involvement of her husband, who will also train in using key comfort words or touching "anchors" and light massage to help Drake trigger her own pain-killing endorphins.
The father is seen more as a "birth companion, not a coach," according to Mongan. "It's not an athletic event."
Because the process is so calming, with soft lighting and music, babies are often delivered more quickly, according to Mongan.
One Florida woman labored so quickly, she birthed alone before help arrived.
"Her body was actually laboring while sleeping and she woke up early in the morning and felt something strange and her membranes released," Mongan said.
"She realized the baby was right there," said Mongan. "She calmly brought it into the world and shortly thereafter the midwife arrived. It just shows you how natural birthing can be."
Mongan's own children, now grown, were born with a "minimum of pain." The first labor took two and a half hours, the next was two, then 90 minutes and the last in under one hour.
"I went through until the baby was crowning and I had to tell [the medical team] I was ready," she said. "They didn't believe I was doing everything because I wasn't screaming and carrying on."
Later, after getting a master's degree in counseling, she added self-hypnosis to the technique.
"It was the same euphoric experience when I was birthing, but I didn't know what it was," she said. "For me it was blind faith."
Her daughter, Maura Geddes was her first HypnoBirthing patient in 1990.
The Concord, N.H., hospital was so impressed that they wanted to learn more about how Geddes had controlled her own pain. They eventually offered classes on the technique.
"Early on from the time my water broke, I knew to relax and breathe," said Geddes, now 50 of Bow, N.H. "I had my son very fast -- five hours from the time the water broke."
A doctor from the nearby Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center watched the process and was "amazed," according to Geddes.
The breathing differs from other natural childbirth techniques. 'It's more like medication and you are in such a relaxed state you can go almost limp," said Mongan.
In 1992, Mongan self-published her book, "HypnoBirthing: Taking the Birthing World By Calm," which was later changed to "The Mongan Method." Today, it is printed in several languages.
When a C-Section is Required
HypnoBirthing works hand in hand with conventional medicine.
Susan Parr, a mother of two from South Portland, Maine, and a professional counselor, tried HypnoBirthing with her second daughter, who is now 8.
"After having a planned c-section with my first child, who was breech, I was really determined to experience labor and delivery in a positive way," said Parr, who is 44. "I was really disappointed about not being able to experience labor the first time -- -it felt so cold and sterile."
For the first 17 hours, Parr had an "amazing labor" and "totally at peace," but after three hours of pushing, she was told the baby was in distress and needed an emergency C-section.
"After being completely pain free, I lost my ability to focus and felt the strong contractions for the first time -- very, very painful," said Parr. But she still credits the method with her "healthy, beautiful 9-pounder."
"She is a totally easygoing, loving, caring, peaceful and sweet little girl," she said. "I think HypnoBirthing helped with this."
Mongan advises expectant mothers to choose care providers who are "supportive, but not an interventionist," be it a doctor or midwife. "It's important they are in sync with the philosophy of the birth."
Even though women like Susan Parr ended up with a C-section, Mongan says not to worry. Only 16 percent of HypnoBirthers undergo that procedure, compared to the national average of 33 percent.
"Just say, 'I will accept whatever turn my labor takes," she said. "We are not opposed to intervention, but unnecessary intervention."
"About 70 percent of our women who birth do it naturally, without medication," said Mongan, who is also not opposed to using painkillers, if a woman wants them.
"We believe that women need to reclaim their birth in whatever way they choose," she said. "The last thing we want to see is a woman biting her lip."