June 26, 2012 at 6:03 PM ET
Rosie Pope, “maternity concierge” for affluent moms-to-be in New York, says she sees it all the time: Pregnant women who become panicky at the thought of childbirth.
“They’ve heard all the old wives’ tales and heard women tell their war stories, and they’re completely freaked out,” says Pope, who’ll be covering the topic of fear of childbirth on upcoming episodes of her Bravo reality show, “Pregnant in Heels.”
That fear can prolong what they most dread, suggests a new study of pregnant women in Norway. On average, women who were afraid of giving birth labored 47 minutes longer than their less-anxious peers, researchers found. And that was after accounting for other factors linked to longer labors, such as a first-time vaginal delivery and the use of an epidural.
The scientists studied 2,206 women pregnant with a single baby who planned to deliver vaginally at Akershus University Hospital in Norway. When they were 32 weeks pregnant, the women were asked to complete a questionnaire designed to assess fear of childbirth. About 7.5 percent, or 165 women, scored in the scared range.
First-time moms might fear the unknown, while women who’ve previously delivered children might be scared because they had a bad birth experience, says lead author Dr. Samantha Salvesen Adams. Other factors linked to fear of childbirth include young age, pre-existing psychological problems, lack of social support and a history of abuse, Adams and her co-authors report Tuesday in the journal BJOG.
Anxiety and fear might raise levels of stress hormones, which are associated with weaker uterine contractions and a prolonged second stage of labor, the researchers write.
So what difference does longer labor make besides, maybe, more discomfort?
“Ultimately, long labor duration will necessitate obstetric intervention,” such as the use of forceps or even a Caesarean section, Adams says.
But extending labor by only three-quarters of an hour might have little impact, Adams says. In her study, 89 percent of the women with a fear of childbirth delivered vaginally, pretty close to the 93 percent of women without fear who delivered vaginally.
“Our finding should, therefore, reassure both women and physicians,” Adams says. That’s a good thing, because there’s little scientific evidence about how best to help women overcome childbirth fears, she says.
Pope, a maternity clothing designer who runs “MomPrep,” an academy for pregnant women, is a big believer in the power of education. “In my experience, their fear of what’s going to happen is actually far worse than what labor is actually like,” she says.
Yet, frightened women tend to avoid childbirth classes, Pope says. They don’t want to know what’s going to happen because it’s too scary to contemplate.
Pope says she makes anxious clients face their fears by showing them a video of a birth. While they watch, they practice deep breathing to help them relax.
Some women, especially first-time moms, might underestimate their ability to push that baby out, Pope says. “No matter how afraid you are…when you go into labor, something kicks in. You know instinctively what you have to do.”
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