Fear of labor… Why does it happen and what can you do about it?

It’s important to look at the underlying causes of fear around birth to normalize and understand why we feel this way. But it’s more important to be empowered and discover some ways that we can work to combat that fear and – maybe – even turn it into excitement.

What did your first teachers have to tell you about birth? By first teachers, I mean your parents. Were they open in talking to you about sex, birth and babies? Or was this considered taboo – certainly not to be talked about at the dinner table? (Apologies to my own children who hear about these subjects at the dinner table on a very regular basis…)

Did your parents reserve telling you the details of your birth unless they were angry with you? “Do you even know how many hours it took me to push you out?!” The way our parents talked about birth around us either directly or indirectly has huge impact on how we approach the very idea of giving birth. What our parents have (or haven’t) shared with us, results in deep-seated and sometimes unconscious attitudes about birth – many of them revolving around fear.

If you’ve grown up in Western culture, you’ve been exposed to images of people giving birth that should probably terrify you! We’re bombarded with images of people screaming their heads off, suffering through an incredibly complicated and life-threatening situation where the birthing person and their baby are in imminent danger! Writers for movies and TV know exactly what they’re doing! They’re manipulating the oldest story in the world – birth – to be as exciting and dramatic as possible so that you won’t change the channel.

There are people who’ve had less than positive birth experiences, some of them truly traumatic, who’ve been told by everyone in their closest circles to “move on” and that “healthy parent, healthy baby” is all that matters. They’re being told to stop processing this event. But we need to process until we’re done processing!

These people who’ve effectively been silenced in their efforts to process their negative birth story need to find other outlets for healing. They see a pregnant belly and unconsciously decide they will process with you! They seem so nice at first, when they approach and ask sweetly, “How many weeks do you have left?” But then, their demeanor seems to change instantly as they share their really challenging birth story with you. As an unsuspecting pregnant and highly vulnerable person, you can’t just hear this story and let it go. It gets packed away as one more thing to worry about as you get ready to give birth yourself.

These are all very real examples of why you might have some fear about labor and birth. Why do we care about this?

Because what happens in your mind plays itself out in your body.

If you respond to your first real-deal contraction with, “Oh no! I think this might be it!” Your body responds with fear – and the ancient autonomic nervous system response of “Fight or Flight” kicks in. This is an okay response to have in pretty much every other situation besides labor.

When your body is in fight or flight mode, your blood flow and oxygen will be shunted away from unnecessary muscles and organs and fed directly to those that need it for fighting or fleeing: your brain, arms and legs.

When you’re ready to give birth, your uterus will be the largest muscle in your entire body. It needs a boatload of blood flow and oxygen in order to do it’s job well. The uterus is made up of smooth muscle tissue that in my mind makes it a “pre-programmed” organ. It knows what it needs to do and on the appointed day and hour when labor begins, it will contract. But how well it will contract depends largely on whether or not you are stuck in fight or flight mode.

If you respond to your contractions with fear, your body doesn’t recognize your uterus as essential to fighting or fleeing. The uterus will not get what it needs to function. You will most certainly increase your levels of tension and pain with each contraction which is likely to only increase your fear, tension and pain.

So how do we break this vicious cycle?

I like to pass along  a few “Fear Busters” to my students. If you start using these – now – you might be able to break the F-T-P cycle before it ever begins!

1) Information: Please stop relying on Dr. Google for all of your pregnancy, birth and parenting concerns. Instead, make sure that your information comes from solid, unbiased and evidence-based sources. Knowledge is power – but only if the knowledge is accurate, current and not based on opinion! Knowing what to expect, how you can work with yourself and members of your birth team to cope with contractions, what options are available to you if the situation requires it – this information can be a huge help. Studies show childbirth preparation classes can result in women reporting (perceived) less painful and shorter labors. Note: They might not actually have shorter or less painful labors, but the perception is what matters here.

2) Affirmation: With all the negative images and stories swirling around you during your pregnancy, you need to actively seek out the positive, for yourself and from others. Pick up a few good books that highlight birth as a normal, physiologic process – and one that shares positive birth stories generously. Seek out the positive and fill yourself up with the good stuff to combat the bad! Write yourself a little affirmation statement! It might sound cheesy, but it can pack a powerful punch! Write the words, “I am strong” on a sticky note and tape it to your mirror so that at least 2x a day while brushing your teeth, you’re reminded of just how strong you are. Partners can write their own, “I”ll be there” and stick it next to yours. This can mean different things to different people, but remember your presence alone is what matters most during the birth.

3) Relaxation: You will probably have to work hard through your contractions. But if you take advantage of the rest and relaxation available between contractions by breathing slowly and deeply, not only are you allowing your blood flow and oxygen to be available for your uterus, but you’re also quieting the fear gremlins in your mind that are causing you to be fearful in the first place. Being truly relaxed between contractions will allow you to enter the “No-Pain Zone” and get recharged for the work that will be required throughout the rest of your birth.

4) Reclaiming Trust: Your body is designed for the purpose of giving birth. And on the day that you are in labor there will be approximately 300,000+ other folks in the world doing the exact same thing! Some will be in beautifully appointed hospitals or birthing centers, some will be giving birth in water at home, still others will be giving birth somewhere in the middle of a jungle or in a tiny village. When you’re feeling fear remember every single person alive today, has been born. You and your body can do this!

When you take these fear busters and apply them, you can completely change the F-T-P cycle into the E-P-P cycle: the Excitement, Power, Progress cycle.

When you feel that first real-deal contraction, instead of reacting with fear, how about responding with excitement? “Oh my gosh, I think this might be it!” said with a smile on your lips. If you can’t get excited about going into labor, then get excited about ending pregnancy! I don’t care how or what you get excited about, but entering labor with this mindset makes all the difference in your ability to cope with contractions.

None of your contractions will ever be more powerful than you – because they come from inside of you! You are powerful beyond measure. On the day you give birth, your body will open up and push a brand new human being into this world. There’s nothing more powerful than that! This sense of empowerment is available to every birthing person, regardless of medication choices or even mode of delivery. You are powerful. Claim your power.

And finally, as the contractions get longer, stronger and closer together this is your very best indication of making progress toward what you’ve been wanting for so long: to hold your baby in your arms!

Taking fear out of the equation of giving birth is not necessarily easy – but it’s key to being able to progress in labor and give birth with as little intervention as possible. Work hard to master these Fear Busters and you might be able to enjoy the E-P-P cycle of birth.

Did you have any fears going into your birth? Were you able to overcome your fears of birth? How?

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