Nadine Robertson, now 33, was 18 years old when she was preparing to give birth to her son Jahsiah. She had no contact with the child’s father or her parents, and as her due date approached, she felt increasingly alone and afraid.
“I was so scared of the pain and of dying in childbirth,” she says. “At one point I wanted to have a C-section because I was so terrified of what it would feel like to have a baby come out of my body.”
It’s completely normal to have anxiety around delivering a baby—many women fear the prospect of pain, while others worry about undignified behaviour (yes, pooping on the table does happen!) or needing to have interventions. Others are simply scared of becoming a parent. “It’s not surprising to be afraid of labour and delivery,” says Maya Hammer, a therapist who works with women during pregnancy. “It’s hard work, and it’s completely unknown,” she says.
The good news is there are steps you can take to help manage your fears.
1. Talk it out: Don’t be afraid to ask questions and talk about what’s bothering you. Hammer suggests speaking with someone—a partner, friend, doctor, doula or therapist—about your feelings as soon as something comes up, no matter how insignificant you think it might be. Expressing your thoughts can help you understand them, which will give you insight into how to cope. And while it may be tempting to avoid thinking about labour, ignoring your worries can make the fear grow, Hammer says. In some cases, it can also affect your mental health during pregnancy. “If fear is not addressed, it can manifest as depression or anxiety,” she explains.
Just be careful about who you confide in, cautions certified birth doula Kelly Carrington. “Get quality advice from level-headed people,” he advises. Friends and family often like to share birth horror stories, but it’s more helpful to hear positive ones, he explains. Talk to professionals who see birth as a normal process and won’t scare you with worst-case scenarios.
2. Fill your tool box: If pain is your big fear, then make sure you know what options are available in terms of pain management. Just knowing you have tools at hand may ease your worries. Varying birth positions may make labour go more smoothly, says Carrington. One trick: Start training your brain to think of contractions as sensations that will help you deliver your baby, and learn how to breathe and relax into them instead of fighting them, says Hammer. (Prenatal yoga and meditation classes can work wonders with this.)
3. Break it down: While it’s a good idea to be prepared, try not to focus all of your energy on thoughts about the delivery. “When I talk to families, I split everything up: what happens before the birth day, on the birth day and then everything that happens after,” explains Carrington. “If you compartmentalize it, you can deal with each section instead of looking at birth as this huge monster.”
4. Go team: Robertson was fortunately taken under the wing of her pastor’s mother, who guided her through the delivery. “During labour, every time I got scared, I would look at her,” Robertson says. “That’s how I remember getting through it. She did things naturally that I didn’t even think of, like dim the lights and talk, and even pray with me when I got scared.”
As Robertson learned, picking the right people to be with you can help reassure you. A strong ally, like a doula or your partner, can advocate for you, especially if you go in with a birth plan that everybody is comfortable with. “Sometimes the fear is about having your power taken away,” says Hammer. “That does happen in some cases, unfortunately, so think about what you will do when suddenly it feels like things are not in your control.” Have a team you trust to help you, and know that you can always ask questions as you go along.
Just remember, no matter how scared you are, you will get through it. Robertson not only survived that first birth but now has her fifth child on the way—and has made childbirth her life’s work. A midwifery student, she plans to focus her work on young mothers. “I want to be able to give women the same unconditional support that helped me.”
Try this: Yoga can help prepare the body for birth (and help you relax). Try the bound ankle pose. Sitting on the ground, bring the bottoms of your feet together. Interlace your fingers around your toes, take a deep breath and feel the stretch.
Not knowing how labour will feel can make it seem scary. For more information on contractions check out this video:
A version of this article appeared in our September 2015 issue with the headline, "Fighting the fear", p. 69.