GentleBirth method already helping mums 'wired for fear' before childbirth

Arlene Harris hears how the GentleBirth method is helping expectant mums and dads have easier, more relaxed birthing experiences.

Photo: Virginia Thomas Photography

BECOMING a mother is an incredible experience but while some women sail through the delivery of their child, others find the whole process deeply challenging, particularly if they have had to endure a long, painful and emotionally traumatic labour.

But according to a recent study of 200 women at Cork University Maternity Hospital (and a similar study in Australia last year), those who adopt the GentleBirth technique can often have a better experience than those who don’t. 

Results showed that 74% of GentleBirth mums do not opt for an epidural and 76% had a spontaneous labour.

Irish midwife Tracy Donegan is the founder of the technique — an antenatal class she developed in 2006 in Dublin.

She says the combination of “brain science, birth science and technology” is what it takes to ensure a calm and positive delivery for both mother and baby. And there are on set rules.

“A positive birth is whatever mum says it is — that could be with an early epidural, a water-birth or a planned caesarean,” she says. 

“But the brain of an average mum-to-be in Ireland is already wired for fear and pain about labour, as women rarely hear positive stories about birth.

“We teach couples simple focus training techniques using meditation so they are literally changing the physical structure of the brain by using the daily app training.

“It’s like doing some DIY brain remodeling so parts of the brain that make us petrified of labour start to get less active and the parts of the brain associated with positive mood, focus and confidence get bigger.”

Donegan says there are two ways to learn the techniques. Couples can attend a weekend workshop with a GB instructor or if mum can’t get to a workshop she can download the GentleBirth app.

“GentleBirth is really more of a mindset than a method but it’s the only programme available in Ireland which includes sports psychology, meditation and hypnobirthing and is based on Irish maternity services rather than the UK or US,” says Donegan, who is a mother of two.

“As a midwife I want parents to have more than one tool in their psychological kit so they can handle anything that comes their way on the day.

“Birth can be unpredictable. If hypnosis is your only tool and things take a different path you can be left feeling very disappointed and even traumatised.”

It’s not just mums who benefit from the programme, the maternity expert says fathers also need some guidance.

“Dads have been sidelined for too long in our maternity services,” says Donegan. “They want to give meaningful support on the day but too often antenatal classes don’t speak their ‘language’ — so mums are missing out on the most important tools in the labour toolkit — a confident, competent birth partner.

“We train the dads in the same mental resilience techniques used by elite athletes so we’re the only antenatal class that teaches the focus skills used by McGregor in the Octagon and Messi on the pitch.”

According to the Dublin midwife, all Irish maternity hospitals now recommend the GB programme and a typical client is one who is planning a hospital birth but is looking for more than the standard antenatal classes.

“GB clients often report that they are tired of hearing ‘horror’ stories and are looking for some tools to make [the birth] the best experience possible,” says Donegan. “They’ve usually been referred by a friend or family member who also used the programme and are looking for ways to reduce their fear about labour and learn how to successfully navigate Irish maternity services.”

Deirdre O’Shaughnessy, editor of The Opinion Line on Cork’s 96fm, found out about GB from a colleague and she and her husband Brian Stokes, thought it sounded like a positive way of welcoming their son Ferdia (now nine months) into the world.

“It was actually a male colleague who told me about GB as his wife used hypnobirthing techniques and found them really helpful (when she gave birth),” she says. “I have a problem with my hip so was really keen to avoid any surgery or interventions that might complicate my existing injury. Also, because of my work, I was familiar with a lot of the negative press surrounding maternity care in the Irish system so I was probably quite apprehensive about the hospital setting.

“But I was lucky enough to avail of midwife-led care through the CUMH domino scheme, which is very supportive of GentleBirth techniques.”

Deirdre attended a workshop where a lot of the ‘mystery’ surrounding labour was addressed and she learned breathing techniques and mantras to help her through the delivery.

“I was lucky as my labour progressed very quickly and with no complications, but the speed of it would have really freaked me out if I hadn’t been so mentally prepared,” she says.

“I had my first contraction at home in bed at 3am and my son was born at 6.30am so it was a bit of a rush.

“I really liked the approach of trusting your body and the baby to do what women have been doing for millions of years but also the fact that GentleBirth is helpful in accepting that births aren’t always straightforward — and that necessary medical interventions with informed consent can also be the right decision. I found it very empowering.

Fact file

* GentleBirth is a specialist antenatal programme which focuses on woman having a positive birth.

* Mums receive daily brain training recommendations through the GB app.

* It suits those planning an epidural and those wanting a natural birth.

Dads have a specific role and are trained to provide meaningful support.

* The programme uses hypnobirthing, mindfulness and sports psychology to prepare parents. The daily practice builds emotional resilience for the stresses of early parenting.

* The GentleBirth app is free for a 7-day trial. A monthly subscription is €12.99 and includes the 300-page guidebook and support from GentleBirth Instructors.

*  Workshops vary from €325 to €375 (health insurance may provide reimbursement).



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