Afraid of Labor: Strategies for working through the fear

My name is Lisa Pierce and I am a certified prenatal & postnatal fitness and yoga specialist, and have worked with hundreds of pregnant and postpartum parents as the owner and head instructor of Tulsa Prenatal Yoga. I’ve been teaching prenatal & postnatal yoga and fitness for 10 years, have years of training in childbirth education and labor support, and have had three kids of my own. 

Here’s what I’ve learned about working through the fear of labor:

First, it is not necessary to eradicate your fear of labor in order to have a happy, healthy delivery. In fact, for most, attempting to get rid of labor fears entirely is an unreasonable goal that can increase distress, especially for first timers or those who had a difficult experience during a previous birth. Instead, what we can do is learn to work through it, and even with it, so that fear doesn’t overpower our experience. That is completely doable, even for the most fearful! 

A strategy I have found to be effective for this is three-fold method that focuses on 1) training, 2) confidence, and 3) acceptance. Let’s take a look at each one. 

Training

You could also think of this as preparation, but I love the word training because it suggests something rigorous and physical, which is a more realistic descriptor for what this entails. Training includes having a basic understanding of the labor and delivery process, what to expect from your care providers, medication options, etc. You cannot prepare for or control every detail (more about that in confidence & acceptance!) but you can familiarize yourself with the most common variables. If you’re familiar with what to expect, you’re less likely to have a fear response when, for example, and nurse needs to examine your cervix to check for progress. Unknowns can be scary and overwhelming, especially when we’re vulnerable. Training or preparing your mind can help reduce those fear responses, and can help you stay more relaxed and focused on the task at hand.

Arguably more important is the physical side of training because labor itself is such a physical process! Labor can be hard work, and just like we wouldn’t run a marathon without putting in work to prepare beforehand, facing an event like labor without physical preparation can be equally unwise. Thorough physical training involves strengthening and mobilizing your body to help make labor more comfortable, learning to breathe through challenge, and practicing working through physical stress. Training all of these can help you feel more capable and ready before hand, and can also help reduce your fear and stress responses in the moment during your birth. Prenatal yoga, walking, and strength training are well documented to safely and effectively prepare our bodies for the work of labor.

Learning how to continue breathing well during stress can make a huge difference in how overwhelming your labor and delivery experience feels. When contractions hit, or when something unexpected comes up, an untrained breather might hold, shorten, or tighten their breath, all of which can send panic signals to our nervous system and increase our experience of pain and fear. A prenatal yoga class that focuses on breathing technique is a great resource for working on this, as are some childbirth education programs. Learning to breathe effectively through physical and mental stress doesn’t make the stressor go away, but it can make it much more manageable. It’s one of the most valuable skills you can bring into labor!

Confidence:

Confidence in labor is trusting that you can handle whatever birth throws at you, but, obviously, building confidence ahead of your birth isn’t something you can snap your fingers and make happen. It takes practice! You will likely gain some confidence through your training–knowing you’ve covered your bases can help take some of the power away from your fearful thinking–but, you still might need more. Affirmations are a great tool for this. One way to work with affirmations is to think of your predominant fears and then write out counters to them. Here’s an example:

Fear: my contractions will be horribly painful

Counter: my contractions can’t be more powerful than me because they are me. I create them.

Fear: something could happen to me or my baby.

Counter: I’ve got a highly skilled team of providers who’s sole job is keeping us safe.

Fear: there’s no way I can do something this hard.

Counter: billions have done this before me; it’s irrational to think I am different than them. 

You could write out the counters to your fears on index cards and read them every night before bed, or anytime you need help quelling your anxiety. You may need to use them everyday for the duration of your pregnancy, or maybe after awhile you’re able to quickly move past those fears on your own! It may be a good idea to bring them with you to your delivery and have your partner or support person go through them with you if needed. 

I also recommend putting strong boundaries around the information you consume during your pregnancy. People may try to unload their bad experiences onto you, and you reserve the right to tell them that negative experiences aren’t conducive to your wellbeing at the moment. Avoiding scary stories, and choosing to read and listen to positive ones, can help you build confidence about your ability to handle birth. There are so many wonderful birth stories available online and in books, and I strongly recommend seeking them out.  

Acceptance:

Acceptance doesn’t mean forcing yourself to like your current circumstances. It’s not “looking at the bright side” or ignoring your troubles. Instead, acceptance is the ability to find a sense of mental and physical peace despite your troubles so that you aren’t warring with them, but breathing and allowing the stress to move through you without overwhelming you. Acceptance is knowing you’re the viewer of your mental movie, not the star. It’s observing the raging river below, knowing you’re on the bridge above, not forced to jump in. If you’re religious, it could mean trusting God. There are many ways to understand and experience acceptance! 

The reason acceptance matters so much is because regardless of how much training you’ve done and how much confidence you’ve built, there will always be unknowns. Before labor, fears will likely still creep in through “what if” thoughts, and during labor, you might face things you’ve not considered, trained for, or that are legitimately frightening. Acceptance fills in the gaps that training and confidence can’t cover. 

Building your acceptance muscles, like everything else, takes practice. Many find imagery, meditation, or yoga an effective way to help build this skill. Imagery can look like the raging river description I used above. You can practice imagining yourself safely perched on a sturdy bridge, perhaps surrounded by loved ones, while a river thrashes below you. You aren’t denying the river exists. You aren’t making light of it or trying to redirect its flow. That would be futile. You acknowledge it’s mighty power, but you know that the river can’t consume you. You can breathe and relax right where you are. Meditation is similar, but instead of actively using imagery, you simply sit with whatever thoughts arise. In a meditation practice, we don’t try to erase or change thoughts, we neutrally observe them. We become the audience and our thoughts become the movie. Whatever arises, we just breathe our next breath and let it be. I recommend taking a few quiet minutes each day to work with one of these acceptance-building practices. It can help in labor and in life!

 

All of these pieces taken together—training, confidence, and acceptance—can help you make inroads in tackling your fear of labor. You may find one tool to be more effective than another, or maybe something else entirely works best for you. But remember, it’s unlikely you’ll get rid of fear completely. You can work towards it feeling manageable instead of debilitating, but there will likely be remnants no matter what. You’re only human and birth will likely be the biggest event of your life! Whatever you are feeling is okay and not wrong. Please know that none of this is a moral imperative. You can navigate labor any way you want. It’s not “better” to be less fearful of labor and you haven’t failed at anything if none of this works for you. Everyone is different and no one should be measured by someone else’s goals. 

Like all things in parenthood, you’ll find your own way and there’s not playbook to rule them all. If these tools are helpful, I’m so glad. But if they aren’t, I encourage to let them go and feel however you want to feel and do whatever you want to do. You’ve got this!


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