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The subconscious in birth


In my classes we spend a fair bit of time understanding the brain. Why? Because your mindset and the hormones the brain releases all have a huge impact on your birth. In particular, your subconscious and your limbic system, plays a critical role in the progression of labour. But how can an organ so far away from your growing baby affect how it’s born? Well, to understand that, we need to go back millions of years, back to when we were primitive humans. Our world was full of danger and predators, and our survival instincts were strong. If we felt threatened or in danger, our brains released adrenaline so we could fight or run away. This is called the freeze fight or flight mode, and is controlled by the subconscious part of our brains. That kick of adrenaline meant a labouring primitive woman would stop labouring so she could defend herself and her unborn baby, or flee to somewhere safer to give birth. Fast forward to the present day, and there’s no more sabre tooth tigers, but the primal part of our brains in our subconscious is still there, keeping us alive and reacting to threats in the same way. So if we feel anxious, stressed, threatened or unsafe, the subconscious puts us in that same freeze fight or flight mode and yup, you guessed it, labour stalls.

But what kind of threats exactly could possibly put a labouring woman in to this adrenaline filled anxiety driven state in a modern birth setting? There’s no wild animals? There’s no club waving cave men? To understand what your brain is interpreting as perceived threats, we need to think about what kind of representations of birth we’ve been exposed to throughout our lives. If I ask anyone to describe a birthing woman to me, the majority of people would describe a woman probably on her back, legs in stirrups, red faced and sweaty, with a midwife shouting PUSH in her ear as she screams in pain. Not the most pleasant (or accurate!) representation of birth. If you think back to birth stories that friends, family or colleagues have recounted, 9 times out of 10 they’ll be stories where something went wrong. For some reason we all love to tell a horror story! TV shows about birth all tend to be dramatic, with an emergency. Let’s face it, a very quick and easy water birth isn’t going to fill a 45 minute TV show or make for seat gripping television! The problem with all these representations of birth, is that they‘re all negative. And your subconscious, responsible for your survival, will store all of these experiences away in a mental file marked “birth is something to fear, birth is dangerous”. So when you go in to labour yourself, your subconscious goes to that file, brings up every negative association with birth and the red flags start waving and cue freeze fight or flight, even if you weren’t aware you were worried about giving birth.

The other problem with our brains is that because the subconscious is responsible for survival, it has a negative bias. You can be exposed to 9 positive experiences, and 1 negative one, and your brain will choose to remember the negative one. So in pregnancy, we need to work really hard to tip the balance and avoid as much negativity surrounding birth as possible. Exposure to positive birth stories, watching positive birth videos, reading about positive births, as often and as much as possible, will all help weaken those neural pathways we’ve built up over a life time that link birth to danger, and start to build new neural pathways which direct your brain to birth and positivity. Practice and repetition is KEY!

So next time a well meaning friend starts to tell you about how their 20 hour labour ended in xyz, politely stop them, explain how you’re focussing on the positive, and go watch a positive hypnobirth on YouTube!

If you’d like to read some positive birth stories, I recommend the books Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin.


If you’d like to find out more about what my hypnobirthing course teaches you, and how it can help you to have the best chance at a positive birth, get in touch!

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