One of the times I hear myself utter this warning is for our discussion on fear in the laboring mother. Specifically, how a mother’s fear will inhibit her labor and birth. “Fear in natural childbirth is like oil and water. They DON’T mix!” I warn.
Often times the fears of a pregnant mom are unspoken and lingering under the surface. Fears she doesn’t want to acknowledge, admit to, or speak aloud. Her fears of labor and childbirth are tricky for her to deal with. It’s not that the fears of a pregnant mom are illogical, needing to be swept under the rug or even quickly resolved with a passing, “It’ll be fine.” In fact, many fears are valid. Will I have a cesarean section? Will we have enough money for baby’s needs? Are we ready to add another family member? Other fears may make the mom feel guilty for even thinking them. Will I like my baby? Will I be a good mom? Is my life over now that I’m having a child? Not only does a mother have her own internal fears to deal with, but media and culture also give an expectant mom plenty to worry over!
The pregnant mom can’t have these fears resolved for her. She must make peace with the uncertainty and sift through the work of easing the worry – an integral step of her journey into motherhood.
So, what happens when a mom doesn’t deal with her fear and carries her worry into the delivery room? Well, fear can play a part in her labor story before she even enters the hospital. Fear can delay the onset of labor as stress hormones set off a “fight or flight” response that shuts down labor until the mom feels safe enough for it to begin again.
Once labor has begun, fear can cause labor to progress more slowly and painfully. We teach that relaxation is the key to natural childbirth. Fear, however, induces the opposite response in mother’s body. When you tense your body, a cycle begins: fear leads to shallow breathing, shallow breathing leads to tension, and tension leads to pain. Pain causes more fear and the cycle begins anew. The mothers in both scenarios are more likely to end up with medical interventions to manage (induce, augment, medicate) their labors.
I was once with a first time mom who labored steadily all day. Around 11pm, a cervical check showed she was 7cm dilated. She thought she was in the home stretch, but she stayed at 7cm for the next 5 hours before being talked into an epidural. The anesthesia allowed her body to finish what her mind wouldn’t. Within an hour of receiving the epidural, she birthed a healthy baby boy vaginally. Weeks later when talking about the birth, she shared that upon realizing how close she was to birthing her baby, she became too scared to cross into that final phase of labor. She worried she wouldn’t know how to be a good mother not having had one herself.
Intense situations, like birth, tend to bring up strong emotions from traumatic experiences in unexpected ways. Those who have experienced abuse, particularly sexual or physical abuse, or survived any other kind of trauma (medical trauma, PTSD) should not only be especially mindful of dealing with their fears, but also anticipate how to handle feeling vulnerable in labor. Most every laboring woman goes through a time of surrendering herself to the labor her body is working hard toward completing. Surrendering allows labor to progress through its final stages; however, it is more difficult for a survivor to navigate. In this case, a mother who has suffered from abuse or other trauma must have an open trusting dialogue with her partner, birth team, and much-needed doula. Therapy may also benefit these mothers.
Life doesn’t have to be perfect to have a smooth natural birth. Mother may still have trepidation and anxiety surrounding her upcoming birth. There may even be plenty of unresolved concerns outside of the birth – like strained finances or an upcoming move – that worry her as well. Understandably so, there are many things outside of mother’s control. However, the difference is that these worries have been expressed, addressed, and she is at peace with the uncertainty. She has relinquished the need to be in control. You see, peace and uncertainty can live together quite happily unlike oil and water.
Below are some ideas my students have found helpful in our discussions surrounding fear and birth.
1. Talk to a trusted partner (husband, childbirth instructor, doula, therapist, mother)
3. Positive expectations/visualizations
4. Positive phrasing about your upcoming birth
5. Take the fear inventory in the Hypnobirthing book
6. Educate yourself on the birth process by taking a birth class
7. Stop watching birth reality shows that dramatize birth
8. Excuse yourself from negative birth talk and listening to others’ negative birth stories, especially in the later months of pregnancy
9. Relax yourself physically so that you may more easily enter into mental and emotional relaxation
10. Hire a Doula!
Written by Danielle Hartley, Certified Natural Childbirth Instructor and Doula
Danielle Hartley is certified in The Bradley Method and is a natural childbirth instructor and doula in Lexington, KY. She is currently working towards DONA International certification, as well. She and her husband have two children both born using The Bradley Method.
“I take great joy in teaching couples in childbirth classes and supporting women and their partners through labor. Helping mothers welcome their babies into the world has proved to be the most rewarding profession I could hold besides wife and mother.”
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