Overcoming Childbirth Fears

by Barbara L. Behrmann, Ph.D.

Which statement most accurately describes your feelings about giving birth?

  • Why bother with labor at all? I'd rather have a scheduled C-section.
  • I'm terrified. Thank god for drugs! I want(ed) an epidural as soon as I feel (felt) that first contraction.
  • I'd like to try for a natural birth, but I will trust my doctor or midwife's judgment about what is best.
  • I trust my body to do what it was designed to do and am ready to embrace the experience even though it might hurt.

Overcoming fear of childbirthIf you're afraid of giving birth, you're not alone. In fact fear seems to permeate the culture of birth today. The mere fact that in the U.S. almost 1 in 3 women give birth via major abdominal surgery sends the message that our bodies may well be defective, that they are unable to do what they used to do naturally. And it's not that C-sections have improved overall outcomes. They haven't.

For decades, women in the U.S. have given birth in a culture that promotes insecurity and plays on our fears. We have been conditioned to believe that birth is something that happens to us, not something we actively do. For over 50 years, asserts Marsden Wagner, a neonataologist, perinatal epidemiologist, and former director of Women's and Children's Health for the World Health Organization, women have been told how dangerous and terrible childbirth is. "Doctors convince women that their bodies don't work. This insecurity then carries over into breastfeeding. If we can't trust our bodies during childbirth, how can we expect them to adequately feed a baby?

A fear of pain is huge. But there is good pain and bad pain. Psychologist and doula Lauren Korfine compares giving birth to running a race. You reach a point where you don't think you can go anymore. You're exhausted, your legs are aching and you're gasping for breath. If someone were to drive up and say, Hey, you're in pain. You're out of breath. Hop in the car and I'll drive you to the finish line. You'll still finish the race, but without any more discomfort, would you do it? Perhaps. But would you feel the same sense of accomplishment? The same rush? The euphoria? Not likely.

Let's extend that analogy. Back up and resume the race. Think about how it would feel if people surrounded you with criticism. You're crazy! they tell you. What are you trying to prove? You can't finish the race. Just get in the car! But you don't want to and you continue running. Only you can't stop for a drink of water and you can only run at one pace. You can't slow down or speed up. And the folks around you say, If you don't get in the car you run the risk of hurting yourself. In fact, you may not be able to run another race. As the pressure mounts, that car begins to look more appealing after all.

Now, let's replay the scenario. You're back in the race but the people around you are cheering you on. They are there to boost your confidence, help you achieve what you have been preparing for all along. If you're thirsty, they give you water. If you have a cramp, they give you a quick massage. If you need someone to lean on, they support you. And all the while they never lose faith in your natural ability to cross that finish line. In fact, only in rare cases is there even a car there as a back-up. Are you more likely to finish the race and feel triumphant? You bet.

Substitute the process of giving birth for running a marathon and you get a new way of thinking about pain, a new way of thinking about how people at your birth can either support or undermine you.

The common phrase used in hospitals today is "active management of birth." This means that instead of supporting the natural process of labor, your cervix is supposed to dilate at a certain rate, and if it doesn't, you will begin to receive interventions designed to speed things along.