Can Fear Prolong Labour?

Can Fear Prolong Labour?

How many pregnant women lie awake at night imagining a long, painful labour ahead?

Most women find the idea of birth a scary prospect.

The way birth is portrayed in the media, and the highly medicalised view of birth, can contribute greatly to this fear of birth.

Nearly every pregnant woman feels some fear about labour and birth, especially if it’s her first time.

Fear of the unknown, and fear of previous experiences being repeated are understandable. But does fear have an impact on how we experience labour and birth?

Fear of Birth Does Prolong Labour

A study in Norway of over 2,200 women concluded that women who were afraid of birth were in labour longer than women who were unafraid. Researchers found women with a fear of childbirth spend 1 hour and 32 minutes longer in labour than women without fears of childbirth.

When the researchers adjusted for factors which contribute to the length of labour, such as the use of interventions, maternal age and previous births, there was still a noticeable difference in labour duration. Women who feared birth were in labour 47 minutes longer than those with no fear.

The length labour ‘should’ be is determined by rules set down over 60 years ago, when natural birth was not the norm. In recent times, research has shown these rules no longer apply, and the length of labour is unique to each woman. Yet care providers still use outdated time measurements, which increases the chance women will experience interventions and c-sections, due to what is known as failure to progress.

What Causes Fear Of Labour?

Let’s face it – labour and birth don’t have good marketing. Birth in movies and TV shows is usually scary, painful and often an ’emergency event’. We’re not really exposed to birth as a natural process at any stage until we’re actually pregnant. Even then, it’s more common to expect women will want to have a medicated birth or even a c-section.

Fear of labour can come from many places. Some women feel scared they will be injured or die, or something will happen to their baby. Some women have a fear of hospitals. Most women are afraid of labour pain and worry they won’t be able to cope.

Every woman’s labour is unique and there are many factors that determine how she feels during her birth experience. During pregnancy it is normal to feel some fear and concern about labour – first time mothers have no reference point to make a comparison. Women who have previously given birth might have had a negative experience which causes them anxiety the next time.

How Does Fear Affect Labour?

Mammals (including human beings) have evolved over millennia to require certain conditions when giving birth. Safety, privacy, darkness and quiet allow a mammal’s brain to trigger the release of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for stimulating contractions.

If these safe and supportive conditions continue to be met, a labouring mother produces more oxytocin, and contractions increase in speed and strength. An undisturbed labour is usually efficient and not prolonged. Oxytocin is from a Greek word meaning ‘quick birth’.

The labouring mother’s nervous system can be triggered to release stress hormones into her body. These hormones (catecholamines) stop the production of oxytocin. Contractions will then slow, or stall, to allow the mother time to move away from any threat or danger.

Today, most women give birth under bright lights, in hospital settings; they are observed and constantly disturbed. A woman’s brain interprets these factors as threats, and so oxytocin levels slow as stress hormones increase. As the ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered, changes in the pattern of her labour can increase her fear. She is likely to experience more pain because her muscles are tense and her breathing is shallow. Feeling more pain will increase the body’s stress response.

Changes to a woman’s labour pattern can cause her care providers to respond with concern. Often their concern is that the woman’s body isn’t functioning properly and this could endanger her baby. There might be suggestions about how to improve the situation.

This concern can increase the woman’s fear and have further impact on her body’s stress response. She is more likely to doubt her ability to give birth, become even more tense, and feel more pain. Read more here about why women’s labours can be long.

How To Reduce Fear Of Labour?

The best way to handle your anxiety about labour is to come to it with as little fear as possible. This takes preparation and commitment. During your pregnancy, identify what is contributing to your fear and talk it through with a trusted friend or your care provider.

One of the best ways to avoid fear of something is to become as informed as possible about it. Understanding the process of labour as a natural event can help you become less afraid of it. If you know what your body is capable of doing on its own, you will know how to avoid situations where your stress response will be triggered.

Being prepared for labour leads you to think of how to cope with labour pain. There are many techniques and classes you can look into. You might find a few which really resonate with you. Make sure your partner and birth support team are on board too – they can  help more, and be less likely to add to your fear if they are well prepared for labour and how to support you. Consider having the support of a doula – these women are trained to provide support and assistance during childbirth and understand the fear you might be feeling.

Be aware that your environment can affect your labour progress. Think about what you want for your birth, and then choose your birth setting and care providers to support this. Talk to your care providers about your fears, and plan how to avoid your stress response being triggered while in labour.

Self care techniques such as meditation, yoga and massage all help to lower stress levels and encourage you to feel more positive. Fear breeds fear. Try to surround yourself with positive stories and positive people. While it’s important to know how to deal with things if they should change, you are not destined to have a bad experience just because your mum, or sister, or friend had one.

Recommended Reading: Fear Of Birth – How Do We Reduce The Fear?


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Sam McCulloch enjoyed talking so much about birth she decided to become a birth educator and doula, supporting parents in making informed choices about their birth experience. In her spare time she writes novels. She is mother to three beautiful little humans.

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