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Marie Mongan, who popularized hypnobirthing, dies at 86

Ms. Mongan wrote "HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method'' and expanded the alternatives for the birthing process.
Ms. Mongan wrote "HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method'' and expanded the alternatives for the birthing process.Globe photo Kathy Seward MacKay

GLOBE STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

Marie Mongan didn’t view the hypnobirthing technique she taught and popularized as an alternative method, or even as particularly new.

“It’s as old as ancient times,” she told the Globe in 2000 in describing an approach to childbirth that uses relaxation techniques, rather than anesthesia, to lessen pain.

A hypnotherapist and former college dean, Ms. Mongan died on June 17, 2019, in the Bow, N.H., home of her daughter Maura Geddes. Ms. Mongan was 86 and news of her death was first reported by The Washington Post. Geddes told The New York Times that her mother had died from complications of the autoimmune disease Sjogren’s syndrome.

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“Ours is as much a philosophy as a technique,” Ms. Mongan said in a 1999 Globe interview. “It teaches you how to call upon your own maternal instincts. When women’s bodies are relaxed, without fear, that body works. We’re not masking pain, we’re eliminating it.”

Though mastering hypnosis, meditation, positive affirmations, and visualizations takes time and determination, Ms. Mongan believed all women could successfully use her approach to childbirth.

Just as important, she said, was helping women move past medical expectations.

“American women have really been sold short,” she said in 1999. “Technology that was introduced specifically to help with high-risk babies is creeping in and becoming so routine that many women think they’re supposed to get epidurals. And our folklore is so ugly. My mother always told me how horrific childbirth was.”

When Ms. Mongan was pregnant in the 1950s with Maura, her third child, she told her doctor that she didn’t want anesthesia – and if he didn’t agree to that, she would find someone who did.

She had declined anesthesia during her first two pregnancies, but the nurses had held down her wrists with leather straps and forced an ether cone onto her face.

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By then, she had long examined works such as those by Dr. Grantly Dick-Read, a British obstetrician who popularized the phrase “natural childbirth” and espoused relaxation to lessen pain. After studying his book “Childbirth Without Fear,” she learned how to bring herself to a state of deep relaxation.

She finally experienced an unmedicated labor and delivery in 1959, when Maura was born. Ms. Mongan called it “the most beautiful birth that I could have imagined.” She delivered her fourth child the same way, and it was just as “spectacular,” she said.

A longtime educator in New Hampshire, Ms. Mongan became a certified hypnotherapist. But it wasn’t until 1989, when Maura became pregnant, that Ms. Mongan started holding classes in hypnobirthing.

“I think this was her gateway,” Maura Geddes told The New York Times.

After Ms. Mongan initially taught Geddes and a few other couples, the Mongan method began spreading by word of mouth in the early 1990s. Ms. Mongan soon began receiving requests to train not only parents but also nurses, doulas, and hypnotherapists.

Ms. Mongan published the books “HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method” and “HypnoBirthing: A Celebration of Life.”

Hypnosis does not put women in a trance or make them fall asleep, Ms. Mongan told The Washington Times in 2000. “It is similar to the daydreaming or focusing that occurs when you are engrossed in a book or staring at the fire — you lose track of what is going on around you,” she said. “You can be fully relaxed yet fully in control.”

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She added that “in birthing, when the mind accepts the belief that without complication, birthing proceeds naturally, no pain exists and no pain is experienced.”

Mothers guided by hypnobirthing are “breathing their babies down to crowning in deep relaxation,” Ms. Mongan once wrote of her approach — a contrast to the pant-pant-blow breathing rhythms characteristic of early iterations of the Lamaze method, which became popular in the 1960s.

National media attention — including a TV segment on the NBC program “Dateline” — and an institute Ms. Mongan helped found brought international recognition and popularity to her methods, which have been endorsed by celebrities such as Kate Middleton and Jessica Alba.

“I always knew this would happen once women started finding out about it,” Ms. Mongan told the Globe in 1999. “My dream is that every woman will be able to bring a baby into the world calmly and gently.”

After the “Dateline” segment was broadcast, copies of her book “HynoBirthing: A Celebration of Life” sold out within weeks, she told the Globe in 1999.

“We are taking the birthing world by calm,” Ms. Mongan said.

Marie Madeline Flanagan, who was known as Mickey, was born in San Diego on Feb. 1, 1933, to Marie Bonneau and Patrick Flanagan. Her mother was a seamstress, her father a Navy chief petty officer who became a fabric mill foreman after the family moved to Franklin, N.H.

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In 1954, she married Gerald Bilodeau, her high school sweetheart, and graduated from what is now Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. She then taught English at the high school she had attended. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1966.

In 1970 she married Eugene Mongan, who died in 2013.

In addition to Geddes, Ms. Mongan leaves three other children, Wayne Flanagan, Brian Kelly, and Shawn Mongan; three stepchildren, Michelle Shoemaker, Steve Mongan, and Nancy Kelley; 17 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren, according to the Times.

Before Ms. Mongan’s name became associated with hypnobirthing, she had been dean of Pierce College for Women in Concord, N.H., appointed in 1965. The school closed in 1972. She later received a master’s in education from Plymouth State and opened, in Concord, N.H., the Thomas Secretarial School, which is no longer in existence.

Her hypnobirthing classes led her to create the HypnoBirthing Institute, now HypnoBirthing International, based in Pembroke, N.H., of which Ms. Geddes is the chief executive. Vivian Keeler, a chiropractor and doula who is the president of HypnoBirthing International, told the Times that the organization has trained and certified doctors, doulas, midwives, and laypeople to become hypnobirth educators in 46 countries.

In 2016, the Cochrane Collaboration, a well-regarded network of independent researchers, reviewed nine clinical trials involving nearly 3,000 women and found there was not enough evidence to determine with certainty whether hypnosis helps women feel less pain during labor, or whether it helps them better cope with labor.

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But a clinical trial published in 2015 in BJOG, an international peer-reviewed journal of obstetrics and gynecology, showed that hypnobirthing can help women feel less afraid and anxious during labor than they might have been.

The participants “had started off as being skeptical, but they ended up being really positive about the technique, as did their partners,” Dr. Soo Downe, one of the study’s authors and a professor in midwifery studies at the University of Central Lancashire in England, told the Times in 2019.

Hypnosis training even helped Ms. Mongan when she fell ill several times in her last years and at one point needed open-heart surgery, Geddes said.

In her last months, even after losing eyesight, she continued to work on a new book about hypnobirthing, dictating her thoughts to her secretary.

“She was really good at putting her mind to something and seeing it through,” Keeler said. “One thing I said to her was, ‘You lost your eyesight, but you never lost your vision.’ "

Material from The New York Times was used in this report. Bryan Marquard of the Globe staff contributed.