It’s not unusual for women to worry about how they’ll cope with pregnancy and childbirth – it is, after all, a life altering experience. But while a degree of worry is normal, an all-consuming anxiety could be a sign of tokophobia – a morbid fear of childbirth.
Tokophobia, which comes from the Greek ‘tocos’, meaning childbirth, is thought to affect as many as one in 10 women. It can manifest itself in several different ways: for some women the idea of being pregnant and giving birth is so horrifying that they avoid it altogether and decide not to have children, while others significantly delay starting a family.
Despite wanting to try for children with her partner in her early twenties, Jasmine Andrews put off trying for a baby until she was 35. “I was absolutely terrified of childbirth. I was scared that I wasn’t going to have any control over what was happening to me,” she says.
Andrews believes her fears were compounded by the number of ‘horror stories’ she’d heard. “It seems that nobody wants to talk about happy, joyful labour experiences,” she says.
Gabrielle Targett, author of the book, A Labour of Love, agrees and says that the emphasis given to negative birth stories shared by women and in the media has caused an epidemic of fear associated with childbirth in Australia.
“It is no wonder women are terrified about childbirth when all they are observing and hearing are negative and trauma associated birth stories,” she says. “So before a woman has even conceived, she has been subjected to a lot of negative conditioning around childbirth.”
Targett’s advice is to look for positive and empowering information and educational classes and books. “Don't expose yourself to all the negative information out there – it’s really not necessary, and is a waste of time and energy,” she says.
For women who are adamant that they can’t overcome their fears of childbirth, an elective caesarean section can provide an alternative route to motherhood. Jo Hartley was so tokophobic that the idea of having a natural birth caused her great distress.
“From the moment I fell pregnant the only thing I could think about was the birth! I spent the first three months in terror, traumatising myself with horror birth stories and videos,” she says.
“The day I made the decision to book in a date for my c-section, I felt like a weight had been removed from my shoulders. It was from then that I felt able to start enjoying my pregnancy.”
Some women develop secondary tokophobia as a result of a distressing birth experience. Psychologist Dr Lisa Phillips-Leece works with women who have suffered birth trauma and suggests that women who are scared about subsequent births should seek counselling from a psychologist or experienced midwife.
“Women who have experienced birth trauma should talk through their previous birth experience. Maybe she hasn’t had a chance to discuss what went wrong; talking it through will help her to heal and recover from that delivery,” she advises.
Dr Phillips-Leece also recommends learning relaxation techniques such as hypnobirthing. Mum of two Rachel Hynes decided to try exactly that when she was pregnant with her second baby, after a difficult first labour.
“My first labour was quite traumatic – I was really shocked by the pain. It went on for 13 hours and I spent most of that time panicky and afraid. I knew I wanted my next labour to be different,” she says.
“My sister-in-law had used hypnobirthing and lent me a book about it. I just wanted to use my mind and feel like I had some control”.
Hynes believes that the hypnobirthing techniques she used the second time around made a huge difference to her experience of labour.
“I had such a positive experience compared with my previous labour,” she says. “I was on a high afterwards – it was quite a turnaround.”