History of Hypnosis for Labour

A short history of key figures instrumental in moving birth from the ‘twilight zone’ of medicated zombies to active birth and hypnobirth…

  • Dr William Kroger – Obstetrician and Hypnotist
  • Dr Robert Bradley – Obstetrician and ChildBirth Educator
  • Dr Grantley Dick-Read – Obstetrician and Author of ‘Childbirth Without Fear’

    Birth practises moving forward

    Birth practises moving forward

  • Dr Fernand Lamaze – Obstetrician and Childbirth Educator
  • Janet Balaskas – Childbirth Educator and Author
  • Sheila Kitzinger – Childbirth Activist and Author

Hypnosis was considered revolutionary and very cutting-edge in the 1950’s, when it began to re-emerge in the aftermath of WW2. During the war, it is likely that hypnosis may have been used as an expediant alternative to a lack of analgesic supplies, to treat both soldiers and civilians alike. It is most likely that it was done by lay persons, as no formally recognised training existed at that point.

Many anecdotal experiences from the war have survived in memoirs and diaries and some made live into TV movies and documentaries and others published, telling us of the grueling savagery of life in the trenches and battlefields and in war-torn communities;  and the daily battles to survive against the many odds, including lack of medical supplies for the sick and injured.  These stories suggest that without medical analgesia, medical personel resorted to other methods of calming and sedating men, to not mind the sharpness of the scapel or invasive surgery into ripped and vulnerable flesh. To distract the mind by reminding the patient of loved places, as in back home where all was well with loved ones waiting for them to come home again!

These soothing stories repeated over and over impressed upon the person, a kind of natural self-hypnosis, that under the trying circumstances they were exposed to, were probably happy to succumb to and demonstrating that even in dire and extremely distressing circumstances, a person’s mind can creatively save itself, from experiencing the full impact of a situation that literally threatens their life.
Perhaps in this context and in the stories of survival that disseminated out into the community postwar, it proved a catalystic background for hypnosis, to make a gentle re-emergence into medical prominence and further prompted a review of giving birth without drugs.

Dr William Kroger – Obstetrician and Hypnotist

A Dr William Kroger, an American practising obstetrician/gynaecologist and trained medical hypnotist, had become deeply interested in demonstrating the efficacy of hypnosis as an analgesic alternative during medical operations.

In 1956, he had recently filmed  the use of hypnosis on a breast surgery procedure on closed-circuit television for a national meeting of anesthesiologists, in the removal of a benign growth, and on another occasion in 1956 in Edgewater Hospital. Time magazine, which was covering the latter meeting, wrote an article about Kroger’s use of hypnosis. He also participated in anesthetising an expectant mother in Hypnosis in Obstetrics, which was also the first occasion on which hypnotism’s use in delivery was filmed. Both educational movies were intended as teaching aids at medical schools, hospitals and scientific meetings and were produced by Wexler Films (now out of business). The first film was rereleased and included on DVD with the second edition of Clinical & Experimental Hypnosis. The text, featuring an introduction by Michael D. Yapko, is a republication of the second edition, originally printed in 1977; the first edition was published in 1963. He also produced the medical film Hypnosis in Dentistry (wikipaedia).

– Caesarean birth under hypnosis –

“The expectant mother” in Kroger’s film was a second-time mother having a caesarean birth, with hypnosis only, because her first childbirth experience had been a miserable one, and later discovered that part of the reason was her allergic reaction to the particular pain relieving drugs, administered to her at the time. The practising physicians in this experiment, wanted to prove to their medical peers and colleagues that medical hypnosis could have a place in everyday childbirth practise, and conferred benefits to both mother and baby without drugs. The film showed an alert mother and baby immediately after birth; and while  the mother was being sutured, she continued to be pain-free, able to talk and was comfortable. Her hypnosis included suggestions that her recovery would be quick and normal without any likely complications.

Despite the beguiling nature of the film clips, doctors alike were not overly convinced of how useful hypnosis could be as routine preparation for labour and childbirth or for other medical operations. Furthermore, it required doctors to be trained in medical hypnosis themselves and to allocate sufficient time to teach their patients in small training groups, if they expected to get successful outcomes for both patients and themselves.

It did plant the seed though that hypnosis was a useful skill worth cultivating, whether they intended to practise it or not.Training institutions (led by lay persons), were developed to teach medical hypnosis to approved persons (namely medical practitioners). This was seen as a stance to protect their newly acquired turf and because such delicate and intimate workcould not be reasonably expected to be done by lay persons. Out sourcing, in those days was an unknown commodity!

Sadly this enthusiasm did not last, though the film impressed many at the time, none saw it as a practical reality that many specialists would want to do or could do. Hypnosis for labour went quietly away.

It did open the doors though to how the greater needs of maternity care could be improved and most agreed that there was certainly room for improvement.

Dr Robert Bradley – Obstetrician and ChildBirth Educator

Robert Bradley, a pioneer in more modern childbirth methods, described those times in the late 1940s and 50s, as “knock-em-out, drag-em-out obstetrics”,  (meaning the baby), as the prescriptive approach to managing women in their labours. He along with others of the day, thought there were much better ways to assist women in their labours instead of managing them or rather manhandling them.  He devised a series of classes that focused on natural birth education, encouraging women to trust their bodies with a focus on diet and exercise throughout pregnancy; and a partner-coached approach whereby couples were taught to manage labour through deep breathing and the support of a partner or labour coach. His methods are still taught today, although revised and updated.

Another supporter of natural birth was Grantley Dick-Read, British obstetrician and a leading advocate of natural childbirth and author of the classic Childbirth Without Fear’, published in 1959 (the year of his death).

“We must refrain from meddlesome interference!”

Dr Grantley Dick-Read – Obstetrician and Author of ‘Childbirth Without Fear’

Women have birthed through the ages without the need to have the kind of interventionist support; that is an increasing intrusion for many women in our particular western culture and for most women, an unnecessary one, with statistics showing increased caesarean sections of up to 33% in most Australian hospitals.

Grantley Dick-Read writes that Hippocrates (who lived from 460 to 355 B.C), based his teaching largely upon the laws of nature as was understood at the time, in exploring the secrets of life, its origin, its maintenance, and its reproduction. He encouraged and instructed midwives to care for women and believed that fear held no place in childbirth, except for abnormality. Hence his memorable and often quoted phrase, “We must refrain from meddlesome interference!”

This wonderful wise man acknowledged the “dignity of motherhood” and that “mother love is a power that must be the centre of our work as obstetricians.” His pioneering book discusses anatomy and physiology of pregnancy and birth, pain of labor, how fear plays a part and how to dispense with it, diet in pregnancy, the judiciousness of breastfeeding and rooming-in, the partner’s roles in pregnancy and birth and the mess obstetrics was making of the processes of pregnancy and birth. He honored the wisdom of natural birth and advocated ceaselessly for it, probably endangering his reputation in the world of obstetrics.

[Review first published in Midwifery Today Issue 74, Summer 2005, © 2005, Midwifery Today, Inc. Review by Cher Mikkola.]

Dr Fernand Lamaze – Obstetrician and Childbirth Educator

The other well-known proponent of natural childbirth was French obstetrician Dr. Fernand Lamaze who developed the Lamaze technique, often referred to simply as Lamaze, a prepared childbirth technique developed in the 1940s by  as an alternative to the use of medical intervention during childbirth.

The goal of Lamaze is to increase a mother’s confidence in her ability to give birth; classes help pregnant women understand how to cope with pain in ways that both facilitate labor and promote comfort, including focused breathing, movement and massage.

As well, the Lamaze method continues to be taught in America, in an updated and revised form.

How does Hypnobirth deliver a better childbirth outcome?

Hypnobirth focuses on the pregnant woman learning how to self-hypnotise and inducing a state of focused absorption, by means of breath awareness and imagery as focal points. Body-Centred Hypnosis is an extra adaptation to traditional hypnosis, recognising that labour and childbirth is primarily a physiological process, therefore it is important that the process of hypnosis should be able to keep up with and be responsive to the changing nature of childbirth, such as any increased surges of intensity, and still be effective in terms of maintaining an internal locus of control and reduced discomfort of childbirth symptoms, and any arising anxiety that may arise.

Hypnobirth fits well alongside the Lamaze and Bradley methods which are based on the same fundamental principles of natural childbirth.

Janet Balaskas – Childbirth Educator and Author

These then and others were the forerunners of the Active Birth model as pioneered by Janet Balaskas, childbirth educator, birth advocate and others like her, notably women who were not obstetricians but midwives, childbirth educators, mothers, and childbirth advocates. Janet Balaskas continues to teach her Active Birth classes with the addition of hypnosis to her active birth education. She is a several times published author.

Sheila Kitzinger – Childbirth Activist and Author

Sheila Kitzinger, a British natural childbirth activist, social anthropologist and author on childbirth and pregnancy is a stand-out notable in helping to spearhead the active birth movement in the early 1970s and 1980s,  and in changing the climate of childbirth practise.  She was instrumental in promoting feminist ideals alongside informed choices as a necessary requisite to change. She was an active lobbyist, working to change the conditions in hospitals that women birthed in; based on the premise that when women had information/education, they could make informed choices based on that education. As women across the western world countries agitated for  improved maternity services, from homebirth activists, midwives, informed obstetricians and educators, improved policies were developed to ensure women could have access to a wide range of services in hospitals and in community. That women when informed about those services, could have a reasonable expectation that their needs were an important consideration during the time(s) they required those services.  She continues to write and teach about childbirth.

Hypnosis and childbirth have come together again in the form of hypnobirthing, calmbirth and in my own rendition,Hypnocalmbirth.


Claire is a Childbirth Educator, counsellor and bodyworker and delivers Hypnocalm Birth programmes. Contact her for more information on 0438 216 351

The Healing Practice is located at 129b Balmain Rd (next to the Cupcake Room), Leichhardt NSW 2040