Many women who wholeheartedly want to be mothers dread the prospect of having to actually deliver a baby. Even if you've had a child before, it's natural for you to feel apprehensive, ambivalent, and even scared about such a momentous event as your due date approaches.
However, as many as 10 percent of all pregnant women feel such an intense fear about childbirth that their negative emotions interfere with labor and delivery. If you fall into this group, you may experience full-blown anxiety attacks heralded by symptoms such as heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, or a racing pulse. You also may have nightmares or problems focusing on anything but this looming terror of the unknown.
Fear and its associated stress can also cause more serious problems that may contribute to both early and late deliveries, smaller babies, a higher risk for an emergency Cesarean section, and choosing a medically unnecessary C-section. What's more, frightened women may actually experience more discomfort during childbirth than calm women do, according to Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Waltham, Massachusetts. Prenatal distress also is associated with postpartum depression and problems with a mother's ability to bond with her child.
If your fears about labor have put you in a constant state of panic, share those fears with your provider. She may clarify misconceptions or have suggestions to address your specific concerns. In the meantime, check out these 10 tips for easing your fear of childbirth.
Certain experiences can trigger an intense fear of labor. These include a history of abuse or rape, a past miscarriage or stillbirth, a previous difficult delivery, and excessive exposure to traumatic labor stories. Also at risk are women with a history of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, according to a 2008 study published in the international OBGYN journal BJOG. Understanding your fear is a first step toward easing those feelings; keeping a journal can help.
Start identifying and dealing with your fears at the beginning of your pregnancy – not the end. Chances are good that your worries are deep-seated, and it can take time to get to their root and address them. Anxiety tends to increase as a pregnancy progresses, becoming most intense as a woman's due date approaches, so try to get a jump on the source and solutions early on.
A study conducted in Finland found that women with an intense fear of labor who underwent cognitive (talk) therapy had shorter labors and fewer unnecessary C-sections than those who didn't. "If a woman feels that her fear is taking over other aspects of her life, such as her intimate relationships, I usually suggest that she see a therapist," says Margaret Plumbo, C.N.M., a midwife at Health East Clinic in Woodbury, Minnesota.
Practicing self-hypnosis, meditating, and doing breathing exercises while you're expecting can help calm you during pregnancy and labor. Listening to guided-relaxation tapes that describe your perfect "peaceful place" is another effective option.
Don't hesitate to tell your doctor or midwife that you're afraid; just talking about it may help, and she may have ideas about how to reduce your anxiety. Sometimes just learning the facts – how often delivery complications actually occur, for example – can put your mind at ease. If your caregiver doesn't seem to listen or lacks compassion, consider finding a new one.
Create a one-page birth plan that includes your desires about such options as pain medication, laboring positions, and fetal monitoring as well as an honest explanation of your fears. Share it with your caregiver during a prenatal visit and have a copy ready to give to the nurses when you're admitted to the hospital. Knowing that your caregivers are aware of your concerns will help reassure you.
Midwives and doulas spend more time with women during prenatal visits and labor than OBs do, and their presence and insights can help you cope with your fears. "Your doula or midwife understands you and will stay with you during labor," says Virginia-based former doula Bonnie B. Matheson, founder of Childbirth Solutions LLC.
Don't watch scary TV shows about childbirth, read horror stories, or listen to friends recount the gory details of their labors. Some experts believe that fear of delivery has become more widespread since the advent of sensationalized depictions of childbirth.
Most women fear the pain of childbirth to some degree, but knowing that safe and effective means of relief are available can help lessen your anxiety. Take a childbirth course, talk with your caregiver beforehand about medication and other pain-relief methods, and include your intentions in your birth plan.
Some women fear the typical hospital childbirth experience. Choosing alternatives, such as having your baby in a homelike birthing center that permits women to deliver in different positions and have more control over their experience and environment, can often allay such fears.