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Many women who whole-heartedly want to be mothers dread the prospect of having to actually deliver a baby. In fact, while just about every woman feels some anxiety about giving birth, 6 percent to 10 percent of pregnant women suffer intense fear. This can manifest itself in such symptoms as nightmares, heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, a racing pulse and difficulty concentrating. Fear and its associated stress can also cause more serious problems that may contribute to both early and late deliveries, smaller babies, a higher risk for an emergency Cesarean section and choosing a medically unnecessary C-section.
What’s more, frightened women may actually experience more discomfort during childbirth than calm women do, according to Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Waltham, Mass. Prenatal distress also is associated with postpartum depression and problems with a mother’s ability to bond with her child.
The good news is that there are ways to reduce your fear of childbirth. Here are 10 of them:
1. Track the source of your anxiety
Certain experiences can trigger an intense fear of labor. These include a history of abuse or rape; a past miscarriage or stillbirth; a previous difficult delivery; and excessive exposure to traumatic labor stories. Also at risk are women with a history of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, according to a 2008 study published in the international OBGYN journal BJOG. Understanding why you’re so afraid is a first step toward easing those feelings; keeping a journal can help.
2. Don’t wait until labor day
Start identifying and dealing with your fears at the beginning of your pregnancy, not the end. Chances are good that your worries are deep-seated, and it can take time to get to their root and address them. Anxiety tends to increase as a pregnancy progresses, becoming most intense as a woman’s due date approaches, so try to get a jump on the source and solutions early on.
3. Consider therapy
A study conducted in Finland found that women with an intense fear of labor who underwent cognitive (talk) therapy had shorter labors and fewer unnecessary C-sections than those who didn’t. “If a woman feels that her fear is taking over other aspects of her life, such as her intimate relationships, I usually suggest that she see a therapist,” says Margaret Plumbo, C.N.M., a midwife at Health East Clinic in Woodbury, Minn.
4. Learn relaxation skills
Practicing self-hypnosis, meditating and doing breathing exercises while you’re expecting can help calm you during pregnancy and labor. Listening to guided-relaxation tapes that describe your perfect “peaceful place” is another effective option.
5. Share your fears
Don’t hesitate to tell your doctor or midwife that you’re afraid; just talking about it may help, and she may have ideas about how to reduce your anxiety. Sometimes just learning the facts—how often delivery complications actually occur, for example—can put your mind at ease. If your caregiver doesn’t seem to listen or lacks compassion, consider finding a new one.