What to Do If You're Afraid of Giving Birth
For the first two trimesters of her pregnancy, Katy Huie Harrison wasn't afraid to give birth. After four miscarriages, she didn't think she'd get that far. Then, around 30 weeks, it hit her: This could happen. "I was like, 'Holy cow, I'm going to birth a baby,'" says Harrison, Ph.D., owner of Undefining Motherhood, an online community guiding mothers on their parenting journey. "I definitely felt nervous, but I wouldn't say I felt afraid."
But at 34 weeks, she was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia. She felt like the other shoe dropped.
"I thought, 'Something was meant to go wrong. This isn't going to work,'" says Dr. Harrison. "I knew having an induced labor as your first birth had a much greater chance of labor stalling. I was convinced at that point that I'd be induced, labor would stall, my blood pressure would skyrocket, and the baby would go into distress."
Dr. Harrison isn't alone. More than 3.7 million babies are born in the U.S. each year, but about 80 percent of pregnant women express fear and worry about their pregnancy or childbirth. These fears are common but manageable if they are talked about rather than dismissed by providers, loved ones, or even the person giving birth.
Experts explain common reasons why women are afraid to give birth and the best ways to overcome those fears.
Common Reasons For Fear of Giving Birth
Perception of Birth
We've all seen movies and shows with a birth: A woman's water breaks, she's writhing in pain and eventually, through screams, sweat, and tears, pushes out a baby. So, people are already predisposed to think birth is a painful experience. Then, if they become pregnant, it can be difficult to go anywhere without someone telling you about how much pain they or someone they know were in during a long labor. "I don't think anyone wants to have hours and hours of pain," says Kecia Gaither, M.D., MPH, FACOG, a double board-certified physician in OB-GYN and maternal-fetal medicine.
Threatened miscarriages, bleeding, placental previa, gestational diabetes, anemia, and pre-eclampsia are a few complications that can occur in pregnancy that may require extra monitoring. Being diagnosed with a complication can make pregnancy less enjoyable and cause fear of something going wrong during the birth process. Though these conditions can be serious and lead to complications during birth, they don't have to.
Previous Loss or Traumatic Birth
If something has gone awry in the past, such as a miscarriage, stillbirth, or emergency C-section, it can understandably perpetuate fear in a future pregnancy. "Everything builds with trauma," says Leah Deutsch, MBBS, MRCOG, LLB, RYT500, an OB-GYN based in London who works with Yoga Medicine and is co-founder of The Birth Collective. "When it comes to birth, there is a fear of a lack of control over our bodies and inability to protect and keep that baby safe from unpredictable events."
Women with a history of sexual abuse may be apprehensive about giving birth. Internal exams and the need for a physician and nurses to touch the genital area can be triggering. "People who have been sexually abused have negative experiences with people touching them in places where touch may be necessary when giving birth," says Christina M. Kocis, CNM, DNP, director of the Division of Midwifery at Stony Brook Medicine.
In addition to previous losses and pre-eclampsia, Dr. Harrison also has anxiety. This only heightened her fears, as it often does for others. "Folks who have pre-existing anxiety definitely can struggle during pregnancy and giving birth," explains Kocis.
What to Do if You're Afraid to Give Birth
Let Someone Know
The first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging it exists. Talk to your provider so they can help you find the right resources. "There's sometimes societal expectations that make us afraid to say we're afraid," says Kocis. "But to step back and say, 'I'm afraid to do this' is OK."
Knowing the reason behind a woman's fear of giving birth can help providers and loved ones cater advice, support, and treatment. Kocis advises women to choose providers who give them a safe space to talk about their fears and provide helpful advice and strategies to help them overcome them. If the provider is not willing to do that, it may be best to find someone else.
Find the Right Support
Sometimes it's necessary to seek support outside your close circle and medical team. Support groups are a great way to build a safe community where you can share your own experience and open up. It also offers people an opportunity to gain more knowledge about the birthing experience.
Sometimes, different doctors will offer different recommendations in pregnancy and about labor and delivery. Support groups, even virtual ones, give women the space to ask questions and tools to advocate for themselves. "That's something that I love about support groups—you're able to go in with a specific question and say, 'My doctor is telling me this, but I really wanted this. Did anyone have an experience?' Take that experience back to your doctor and say, 'These are some options other people's doctors gave them. Can we talk about them?'" says Dr. Harrison.
If you'd prefer a one-to-one experience, consider seeing a therapist, especially if you feel detached from your pregnancy or are showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stemming from a previous loss, traumatic birth, or sexual abuse. "If you feel the anxiety is getting in the way of your ability to connect with your pregnancy or have any chance to enjoy childbirth, then I would recommend talking to a therapist," says Dr. Harrison. "Sometimes, being able to talk through those experiences can make a world of help."
Dismiss Negative Talk
Just because someone can tell you about their birth experience or someone else's doesn't mean they should. If it's making you anxious, you have every right to ask them to stop. "Say, 'I really appreciate it, but I think I'll have that conversation with my doc,'" suggests Dr. Gaither.
Take a Birthing Class
Hospitals and doctors often offer birth classes, where instructors demystify the birth experience (hint: it's not all like the movies or how that random person in the elevator says it is). They'll also go through tips on how to time contractions so you know when to head to the hospital and how to breathe through pain. They'll also let you know how the hospital handles emergencies.
"It's important to not only understand what is natural and what your body can do but also what happens if something doesn't go according to plan," says Dr. Deutsch. "Understand the process and what might happen so you can visualize before."
If you're unable to go in person, especially because of the pandemic, many hospitals offer virtual classes. The Birth Collective also holds them.
Yoga is known to help with relaxation and mindfulness, which can help women anxious about giving birth. Breathing is also an essential part of the labor process. "The physical act of yoga can create a link with the body and an awareness of what is going on in the body. Having that is is a really powerful tool when it comes to the labor process," says Dr. Deutsch, who has classes on her YouTube channel.
Research—But Beware of Dr. Google
Dr. Harrison credits her research with helping her achieve a positive birth experience, but she cautions that where you find the information matters. The internet is full of blogs and forums that don't necessarily offer evidenced-based information and advice. "I tell people all the time on my website, 'Stay away from Dr. Google,'" she says.
Use academic databases if you have access to them, and talk to your provider about anything you find since some of it may be older information that is no longer relevant.
Create a Birth Plan
Ask about birth plans in a Facebook group for mothers, and you'll often hear, "You can't plan birth." This is true, but you can express your birth preferences and advocate for yourself. Birth plans are often a way to have conversations with providers about concerns. Dr. Harrison suggests having these conversations around the start of the third trimester, as these discussions are best had in the doctor's office rather than during labor at the hospital.
Dr. Harrison taught at Georgia Tech and had access to the school's academic databases. She searched for evidence-based advice on the induction process and stalled labor and came up with a birth plan, including a desire to hold off on an epidural until she was at least 6 centimeters dilated and in active labor. Her research and plan helped her feel more informed and in control, allowed her to decide what medicines she was OK with, and after a difficult road to motherhood, she overcame her fear of giving birth.
"It made me feel like I was taking control of an uncontrollable situation," says Dr. Harrison, whose son is now 3 years old. "And gave me the ability to make a plan for what I actually wanted to do."