No matter how you slice it, childbirth is scary. You're trying to squeeze a pretty large baby head (and shoulders and the rest) through a pretty narrow channel (vagina!), and yes, in theory, your body is designed to do this and it will work—but what if it doesn't? We all know that practically every woman in labor is rushed off screaming to an emergency C-section because the baby is in distress or it turns out the baby is an alien or something else horrifying. I mean, we watch TV. So, it seems quite natural, really, that we would be terrified of having to actually birth a child of our own. But a new study suggests that maybe we should find a way to get over that because it turns out women who have a fear of childbirth also have longer labors. Ahhh! Great, now we are both scared of giving birth and scared that our fear is going to make it even worse. Nice going, science.
The study was done in Norway and looked at 2206 women who were pregnant with a single baby. Researchers evaluated the participants' level of fear at 32 weeks pregnant using an established questionnaire, and they found that between five and 20 percent of pregnant women are afraid of childbirth. It seems like that number should be closer to, oh, 100 percent, but apparently when you actually evaluate people for serious fear, it's really only about 7.5 percent who suffer from abject terror. There are certain factors—like being young, being a first-time mom, having a lack of support, or a history of abuse—which make it more likely you'll be afraid. As for the makeup of the study's participants, their average age was 30.9, and just over half of them were first-time moms.
When it came to labor, researchers counted it as beginning at three- to four-centimeters dilated and having three contractions per 10 minutes and ending, duh, when the baby is delivered. And using that measurement, they found the average length of labor was 8.22 hours for first-time moms and 4.91 hours for women who'd had previous children. But, here's the sad part, the women who had an established fear of childbirth spent an hour and 32 minutes longer laboring than women who weren't afraid. The average labor lasted 8 hours for women who were afraid and roughly six and a half hours for women who weren't. An hour and a half! That sounds like an eternity. After they'd adjusted for having had previous kids, epidurals, induction, and other factors, it turned out the difference was 47 minutes, which is still a significant amount of time. Jeeze, maybe we're right to be afraid. Argh, no, wait! We're just making it worse!
Interestingly, 17 percent women who were afraid had "instrumental vaginal deliveries" (meaning assisted by either induction, forceps, or a vacuum); whereas women who weren't had them only 10 percent of the time. Same thing with emergency C-sections. Women who were afraid had them 10.9% of the time, and women who weren't had them 6.8 percent of the time. When it came to having a plain old vaginal delivery with no interventions, 44.4 percent of women who were not afraid had them, but only 25.5 percent of women with fear did. The reason for this is explained by Samantha Salvesen Adams, co-author of the study:
We found a link between fear of childbirth and longer duration of labour. Generally, longer labour duration increases the risk of instrumental vaginal delivery and emergency caesarean section. However, it is important to note that a large proportion of women with a fear of childbirth successfully had a vaginal delivery and therefore elective caesarean delivery should not be routinely recommended.
Well, that's a relief since the only thing as scary as giving birth is having a baby surgically removed from you. As for why fear leads to longer labor, the study didn't provide any answers. But it looks like, if you're expecting and afraid, you can go ahead ratchet your fear up even further by thinking about how much longer you're going to have to be in labor because of it and work yourself into a total freak-out. But really, it's probably better to try and relax, because your labor is going to be what it is, and in the end you'll have a perfect, beautiful baby to love and raise—and that is the part that's going to be really, truly, bone-shatteringly terrifying and it's going to last for forever.
Image via Leah-Anne Thompson/Shutterstock.