Is social media leading to a rise in a fear of childbirth?

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

An UK expert is cautioning that "horror stories" about labour and birth shared on online parenting forums, may be contributing to the rise of tocophobia: a fear of childbirth.

Appearing at the British Science Festival last week, midwife and researcher Catriona Jones said: "You just have to Google childbirth and you're met with a tsunami of horror stories. If you go on to any of the Mumsnet forums, there are women telling their stories of childbirth - oh, it was terrible, it was a bloodbath, this and that happened. I think that can be quite frightening for women to engage with and read about."

But while Ms Jones acknowledged that social media isn't "leading" women to be afraid of childbirth, she notes: "It plays a part."

Research shows that tocophobia affects around 14 per cent of women. There are two types: primary - a fear of childbirth in a woman with no experience of pregnancy and secondary, where the fear develops after a traumatic birth. But while it has increased in prevalence since 2000, not everyone agrees that social media is to blame.

Mumsnet founder and CEO Justine Roberts told BBC Three: "Mumsnet users are, in the main, impatient with the idea that adult women aren't entitled to discover the truth about the full spectrum of birth experiences, from the blissful to the terrifying.

"Understandably, a great deal of NHS messaging about labour focuses on the positive, but the downside of this is that mothers who have traumatic experiences feel, in retrospect, that they were given a deeply partial account: one of the most common complaints we see on this topic is, 'Why on earth didn't anyone tell me the truth about how bad it could be?'"

In a later interview with NewsTalk, Ms Jones clarified they she and her researchers were not saying that social media causes tocophobia - or telling women to stop sharing their stories.

"What we can deduce from some of the research is that birth media, not just forums, but birth media in general, may be setting birth up as a negative experience," she said. But while Ms Jones notes that it's natural for women to want to share their experiences, she added: "There are no clear answers at this point in time with respect to how much information is too much."

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Her colleague, midwifery professor Julie Jomeen, also weighed in on Twitter, explaining that for some women, media depictions link to "morbid severe fear."

Dr Nicole Highet, clinical psychologist and director of Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE) agrees that there's a fine line between preparing women for the realities of birth without inducing fear by reporting "horror stories". And while she acknowledges that there may be specific sites where there are "graphic stories", the reality in Australia is that many women are unprepared for the realities of childbirth. 

"If anything, "she says, "women's experience of trauma is likely to be exacerbated by the fact they hold high expectations which does not prepare them for the reality of birth."

Dr Highet notes that while many women know labour is going to be painful, they are often not prepared for the true extent of the pain that they are likely to experience. "Research also suggests that women's experience of trauma is likely (at least in part) to be influenced by their expectations for birth," she says. "The higher the expectations, the more likely they are to report having experienced a traumatic birth. As a result women are likely to report lower levels of birth trauma at a subsequent birth where their expectations were not so high (or maybe idyllic)."

The need for informed, realistic and supportive information was a major factor underlying Dr Highet's development of a Ready to COPE Guide - a fortnightly email which prepares women for the realities of birth. "It encourages women to be aware of their expectations, their options and provides supportive advice in the lead up to, and following birth," she says. "Ready to COPE also supports women in the process of recovering from a birth that may not have gone to plan, and helps them to identify if they may be in need of additional support and/or professional help."

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