New Research on the Effects of Fear on Birth

By Courtney Clark

July 3, 2012

The fact that fear of birth (or parenthood) can effect your labor negatively is the kind of thing that every OB, midwife, labor and delivery nurse, or doula could tell you. I know that personally my levels of apprehension and fear made a world of a difference between my first and second labors. We even had a guest blog just a few weeks ago, in which a mother discussed how her fears about being controlled by the hospital staff and guidelines may have disrupted her daughter’s birth (she went on to have a wonderful hospital birth experience).

Now a study from Norway, published last week, has evidence to show just how much fear can, and does, effect laboring women.  The study looked at 2206 women pregnant with single babies planning on vaginal deliveries, and assessed their fear levels by a questionnaire at 32 weeks gestation.

What they found is that the women who feared birth had, on average, a labor lasting 1.5 hours longer than women with little or no fear- 8 hours instead of 6.5.  (Labor was defined as starting when the woman was dilated to at least 3-4 centimeters and having 3 contractions per 10 minutes).  Even after adjusting for other known contributors to labor length- previous labors, epidurals, inductions, and instrumental vaginal delivery, the difference was still a notable 47 minutes.

Even more concerning the study found that women with a fear of childbirth were 7% more likely to be delivered by forcepts or vacuum, and 4% more likely to have an emergency c-section. In total 25.5% of women with fear had a vaginal delivery without interventions compared to 44.4% of women without fear.

Between 5-20% of women have a fear of childbirth, and while there are many factors that can contribute to an increased fear like young maternal age, being a first-time mother, lack of social support and a history of abuse or adverse obstetric events, it’s important to note that the median age of women in this study were 30 years old and half had previous children. In other words- it can affect us all. Luckily research like this just brings it more into the publics, and birth professionals, eyes.  As John Thorp, the Deputy-Editor-in-Chief of BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, which first published the study said, “There are a number of reasons why women may develop a fear of childbirth. This research shows that women with fear of childbirth are more likely to need obstetric intervention and this needs to be explored further so that obstetricians and midwives can provide the appropriate support and advice.”

But what if you are due in just a few months (or days!) and now this research showing the ill affects of fear during labor and delivery has now gotten you even more worked up in fear about your upcoming labor and delivery, which in turn makes you think about how your even greater fear will mean an even longer labor, ect, resulting in a horrible spiral of fear and anxiety?  Take a deep breath, facing your fear head-on and admitting that its there is the first, and most important step to overcoming it. Discuss your concerns with your care provider, or doula, and maybe they will have some words of comfort and advice for you, often our worst fears are based on false facts and ideas that a birth professional can clear up in a matter of minutes! And last but not least, Bloom wrote an article a few months ago discussing exactly how fear slows down and complicates labor, with even more tips on overcoming that fear to have the best birth possible!


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