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Birth Language

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”  –Rudyard Kipling

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Recently, I was asked to teach some lovely nursing students about hypnosis for childbirth.  I thought it would be an excellent time to slip in some suggestions for using positive language in the birthing room.  Regardless of whether a woman is using hypnosis for her birth, she is still in an altered state of consciousness.  Words become suggestions when we are in an altered state.  In other words, the power of language grows exponentially during our births.

Based on statements I have heard during births, I put together a hand-out for these nurses.  Here is a sampling of what I included.

General Language Suggestions

  • “You’re safe” instead of “Don’t be scared, you’re not in danger.”  When we are in an altered state of consciousness, our brain takes in only the prominent words in a statement.  So “you’re not in danger” becomes simply “Danger.”  In movies, I hear people saying, “Don’t die on me!” and think “No!  Say, live instead!”
  • “Your body is wise.”  The birthing mother is the expert on this birth.  We must never forget this nor should she.
  • “Feel your shoulders relax” instead of “Don’t tense your shoulders.”  Again.  If we speak in negatives, she might hear “tense your shoulders.”
  • For IV placement or injections, “I’m going to rub on some cold and then there might be some pressure” instead of “This will feel like a bee sting.”  No one likes a bee sting.
  • “Breathe your baby down” instead of “You’ll feel burning.”
  • “Special considerations” instead of “complications”
  • “You’ve dilated so much!” instead of “You’ve only dilated ½ cm.”
  • “When babies are in a posterior position, we can try to…” instead of “Your baby is posterior.” (distance the negatives, only personalize positives)
  • “You’ll have all the energy you need to birth your baby” instead of “I’m scared you’re going to wear yourself out.”   I hear this one all the time as a reason for women to get an epidural.  Women release a surge of adrenaline just before they begin pushing.  You’ve heard stories of what incredible feats people accomplish under the influence of adrenaline.
  • “You look so strong” instead of “You look like you’re in a lot of pain” or “What is your pain scale?”  When a perceived expert tells someone they look like they are in pain, then certainly that is going to influence pain.

Do not say:

  • “Get mad at your baby.”  I cannot tell you how much this one bothers me.  I have strong beliefs that regardless of how babies come into the world (cesarean, forceps, on the side of the freeway), they should be welcomed with joy.  Why would you tell someone to get mad at your baby?  Or get mad at all?  Anger and birth don’t mix in my book.
  • “This is going to hurt.”  Don’t assume what she will feel.  Maybe it will/maybe it won’t.  But telling her it will hurt is a guarantee that she will expect pain and likely experience it.
  • “You’re not allowed/I can’t let you.”
  • “I’m going to be your worst enemy”  I’ve actually heard a nurse say, “Think of me as the Wicked Witch.”

Avoid:

  • Mentioning numbers (dilation, stats, time) unless she specifically asks.  During an unmedicated birth, the thinking brain slows way down.  Numbers, questions requiring cognitive answers, consent forms, bright lights may keep the thinking brain engaged.
  • Telling her what she’ll feel or trying to describe what you think she’s feeling
  • Negatives (Don’t tense your jaw)
  • Speaking during pressure waves/contractions
  • Unnecessary questions.  Questions wake up the thinking brain.

When in doubt:

  • Be silent.  Or murmur how well she is doing.  Be frugal with words.
  • Give yourself an affirmation such as “I am entering a sacred space and I will use my words and my skills for healing and comfort.  These are the gifts I bring.”

What would you add?  What language have you heard in the birthing room that hindered rather than enriched.

The Jedi Midwives

The last 9 months, I’ve been birthing new understanding about the power of words. As often happens, many areas of my life have carried the theme lately. Most notably, Star Wars.

You heard me. And I’ll come back to it.

My ears have been listening and my senses attuned to authority figures and their use of words.

  • A parent says, “I know you love your brother and want to make amends.”
  • A nurse says, “I want you to think of me as the Wicked Witch.”
  • A teacher says, “I can tell you are all listening carefully.”
  • A doctor doing a blood draw says, “It is going to feel tight and then tickle.”
  • A midwife says, “This is going to hurt.”
  • A mentor says, “You will make the right decision.”

What we say and how we say it matters.

This article written by a physician gives several examples of doctors influencing their patients with words. There are some crazy medical stories out there about patients cured and killed by words.

I’ve been reading all sorts of stories about linguistic placebo. And practicing on my kids, “Let me give you some magic medicine for that boo-boo” and “Your brain will tell your body that the carsickness is gone. Your tummy will settle. You will rest your eyes and sleep now.”

In January, I was poked and tested as we tried to diagnose my mystery tropical illness. A nurse said, as she was holding the syringe, “this is gonna burn.” Wow. It hurt so badly! Then came the flu test. I’d never had a flu test nor seen anyone else have one. I had no idea what was involved. The nurse practitioner said, “this is really going to be uncomfortable.” I panicked. How far into my nose was she going to stick it? I started sweating and saying, “Wait, wait!” I made her give me a minute while I found prepared my hypnosis cues. Good grief. It was not a big deal at all although I almost passed out from anxiety. If she had instead said, “I’m going to swab the inside of your nose and it will tickle some” the whole thing would have been a non-incident.

Give me expectations of pain and my imagination will run wild.

Cedar will freak out if I say, “It isn’t going to hurt.” Because her toddler brain only hears, “going to hurt!” When adults are anxious or groggy or in pain, sometimes our brain only hears in shorthand, too. Instead of using negatives, “this won’t hurt” could we say, “this will feel tingly?” Or could a nurse rub the IV site and say, “I’m going to numb your skin and you will feel cold on your arm.” Why must it feel like a “bee sting”? Who sits still and welcomes a bee sting?

You can see why birth language is so important. We have a few midwives in my area who don’t fancy hypnosis. That would be ok except that they speak words that undermine it. (!!) A midwife, whether she likes it or not, is an authority figure. She says, “I’ve never seen hypnosis work,” or, says to a woman using hypnosis, “This is going to hurt” or “Push past the pain” or “You might feel a burning sensation.” A woman in hypnosis is highly suggestible. What do these statements do?

Interestingly, I rarely see OBs interfere with hypnosis. Maybe they are curious or maybe they just don’t care.

I love quiet midwives. The ones who murmur, “you’re doing wonderfully well.” The ones who don’t assume they know what the birthing woman will feel next. What if she isn’t hurting and you tell her she will feel a burning ring of fire? Or that her pains will become more intense? Do you think that will impact her? Go hang out on any birth hypnosis forum and read how care providers derail births with their words.

So what does this have to do with Star Wars? Scott and I decided to watch the Star Wars Trilogy recently. I realized that this linguistic placebo is like a Jedi mind trick. I have seen this in action. I call them The Jedi Midwives.

You remember the Jedi scenes in the Star Wars movies? The Jedi speaks gently, “We are not who you are looking for. You will let us go.” And then the storm trooper says, “You are not who I am looking for. You can go.”

Linguistic placebo.

It works at births. The midwife whispers, “your cervix is dilating easily.” The woman’s instinctual brain intuits the message. And her cervix melts away.

I’ve seen it happen. Happen in ways that were as mind-blowing as some of the medical stories about the power of words. I’ve seen The Jedi Midwives influence the birthing woman’s body with their words.

I realize there are other care providers (midwives, nurses, and doctors) who use their Jedi powers. I’ve simply seen The Jedi Midwives use them most.

What can you do if your care provider does not know the Jedi tricks?

  • Help your doula and partner understand the importance of words. Teach them about the force. 🙂 Sometimes the medical care providers will catch on as they hear your team saying, “She’s doing so well” or “your body knows how to birth.”
  • Put it in your birth plan. Perhaps you don’t make it Star Wars themed (and certainly not Padme style!) but you could write, “Please do not tell me what I will feel or discuss pain.”
  • If you’re using hypnosis, play it up. Most care providers know little about how hypnosis for childbirth works. If you give them some “rules” they may take the high road and not say anything. (Those who have their mouths open all the time generally have their ears shut.
    Barriss Offee)
  • Ask for silence. Have music playing. Turn the lights out. People are quieter in such an environment. If you’re using hypnosis, have the scripts playing out loud. It might even put your care provider to sleep. I remember a hospital birth at which the nurse kept sneaking into our room to sit on our couch. She said our room was so peaceful and smelled so relaxing. She didn’t speak. Just crept in and chilled on the couch.

The more we learn, the more we discover how much we do not know.Yoda