Tokophobia – Coping With An Intense Fear Of Childbirth

Tokophobia – Coping With An Intense Fear Of Childbirth


Tokophobia has been getting increased media exposure of late, and for good reason – the incidence of tokophobia is growing.

Most women feel a little anxious about being pregnant and giving birth, especially for the first time.

From an early age we are fed the message that pregnancy and birth are unpleasant and painful experiences to be gotten through.

From the first moment they announce their pregnancy, women are inundated with horror stories about long, excruciatingly painful labours by well meaning family and friends.

It can be hard to focus on having a positive birth when you don’t know what to expect and aren’t given the grounding that birth is normal.

For some women, there is a genuine morbid fear of pregnancy and or childbirth. They do not look forward to the arrival of their baby and have an intense fear of pregnancy. They will even avoid birth itself. This is a condition known as tokophobia.

What Is Tokophobia?

The word tokophobia comes from Greek tokos meaning childbirth and phobos which means fear. Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder, involving an intensely irrational fear of an object or situation that poses little or no danger. Most people know phobias such as fear of spiders or closed in spaces.

Tokophobia is a pathological fear of pregnancy and birth. It’s classed as primary or secondary.

Primary tokophobia occurs in a first time mother, who has no experience of being pregnant or has not given birth before. This fear may begin well before the woman has reached childbearing age, when she is a child or teenager.

Women who experience primary tokophobia often have a history of sexual abuse/trauma, rape, traumatic experiences of overwhelming pain, negative hospital experiences etc. They may have been exposed to media or stories of pregnancy/birth as a horrifying and intensely painful experience or even causing death or permanent injury.

Secondary tokophobia usually occurs in women who have had previous traumatic pregnancy or birth experiences. This trauma may relate to negative experience with hospital staff, feeling they or their baby was going to die, stillbirth, late-term miscarriage, pregnancy termination, or hyperemesis gravidarum (a debilitating form of morning sickness).

How To Recognise Tokophobia

It’s estimated that around 10% of women worldwide suffer from tokophobia. While well recognised in Britain and Scandinavia, there is little information and awareness about this condition in other countries such as Australia or the US. Actress Helen Mirren revealed she has tokophobia in an interview in 2007, saying a birth video she saw as a 13 year old disgusted her so much that she never wanted to have children or anything to do with birth.

Physical and psychological symptoms of tokophobia vary but can include:

  • Recurrent nightmares
  • Hyperventilating
  • Sweating and shaking
  • Panic and anxiety attacks
  • Crying (triggered by sight or even words)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Thoughts of death or dying

Many women with tokophobia are unaware of their phobia until they get close to full term. They may request an elective c-section but find their doctor doesn’t understand or is not sensitive to their fear. This can lead to more anxiety.

Women whose phobia is related to pregnancy may be seen as over reacting or being melodramatic about their fear. These women may choose to not get pregnant and are often very careful about using several forms of contraception.

Women who desperately want a child may become pregnant but their dread and trauma stemming from tokophobia may become so intense they opt to terminate their pregnancy.

Can I Avoid Tokophobia?

Phobias can run in families so if you have had a family member with a type of phobia then you are more likely to experience one yourself.

Sex and birth education enabling young women to be informed about their bodies in a positive way could go a long way to avoiding traumatic experiences in their future. Normalising birth and educating girls at a formative age about birth as a normal process can ensure women are not being traumatised before they have reached childbearing years.

Positive birth awareness is crucial to allaying women’s fears about childbirth. One of the biggest influences on women’s ideas of birth is the media. Most women have never experienced birth firsthand before giving birth themselves. Reality television shows featuring dramatic emergency situations during labour and birth are often all women know before their own experience. The vast majority of women search online for pregnancy and birth information and may be exposed to misinformation that increases fear and anxiety about birth.

Being informed about birth in a realistic, positive way – whether through a woman’s doctor, midwife or antenatal classes, is one of the most vital ways of preventing birth trauma. More woman-centred care, such as midwifery models which provide one to one care for pregnant women, have the potential to ensure the maternity system is not creating birth trauma leading to tokophobia.

How To Cope With Tokophobia?

Often women who experience tokophobia are frightened of having a complete lack of control over what is happening to them. Whether that is the idea of another human growing inside of them or the fear of being injured or dying in birth, the extreme anxiety and dread can affect their lives to the point of debilitation.

Women who have tokophobia are often prescribed anti depressant or anti anxiety medication. Cognitive behaviour therapy, hypnotherapy and EDMR (eye movement desensitisation reprocessing) are other recommended therapies to try to overcome Tokophobia.

EMDR is a therapy that is somewhat controversial but has been shown to have a prompt effect. It appears to help reduce intense fear by processing previous traumatic memories associated with the phobia. In individual sessions, trained professionals help people work through specific memories while using an external stimulus, such as eye movement or tapping. This movement facilitates processing of the traumatic memories.

For women whose phobia is more focused on birth, there tends to be a previous traumatic experience in their past. Counseling and processing their previous experience may help them to overcome their fear. For some women though, this isn’t enough and they request an elective c-section. Many of these women wish to have a general anaesthetic to avoid being present at all.

For women who live with an intense fear and dread of pregnancy and birth, the idea of experiencing either can be overwhelming. It’s important to know that help is available and treatment can be successful. The first step is talking to a trusted care provider so that you can be supported to the right help and treatment for you.

Recommended Reading: 9 Ways Private Childbirth Classes Can Get Better Results.

Last Updated: December 8, 2015


Sam McCulloch enjoys talking so much about birth that she decided to become a birth educator and doula, supporting parents in making informed choices about their birth experience. In her spare time she watches Downton Abbey and has numerous creative projects on the go. She is mother to three beautiful little humans.

One comment

  1. Its quite irritating the amount of focus their is on first time mothers with fears etc its actually more likely for a woman to be fearful that has already had a child and going onto having another as they know what is about to happen which makes it all the more frightening .. I am going onto having my second and am beyond scared! .. obviously I had nerves about giving birth the first time but was a lot less fearful as I didn’t have any experience or anything to compare with via previous experiences

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