Are you afraid to have a baby?

August 24, 2017 | by Lisa Chorzempa-Schainis, MD
Categories: Healthy Driven Moms

We all have phobias. Some of us are afraid of spiders or snakes. Others are terrified of closed spaces or have a fear of heights.

There is another kind of fear that is rarely talked about. Derived from the Greek  word “tokos” (meaning childbirth), it’s called tokophobia. It’s defined as a dread or intense fear of giving birth.

It’s normal to have some fears about childbirth. After all, so many things need to go right leading up to the delivery of a healthy baby. Expectant moms worry about having a safe birth without complications or too much pain.

Nearly 80 percent of pregnant women express worries and fears related to pregnancy and childbirth.

But, for an estimated 13 percent of women, the fear of giving birth is so extreme, it causes them to postpone pregnancy, or avoid having a baby altogether.

Unlike other childbirth-related conditions such as postpartum depression, the fear of childbirth was first documented only a decade ago and remains a relatively unknown diagnosis. In fact, tokophobia is not currently included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Tokophobia can be classified as primary or secondary:

  • Primary tokophobia involves women who have never been pregnant. They may have developed a fear of childbirth at a young age, after seeing disturbing images of a birth, or sometimes after suffering sexual trauma or abuse.
  • Secondary tokophobia involves women who have had a previous traumatic birth experience, miscarriage, stillbirth or termination of a pregnancy. It is often described similarly to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Women with tokophobia may fear a number of things. They may fear pain, miscarriage, preterm birth, dying during childbirth, birth defects, trauma to their body, not being listened to by their healthcare provider, or simply the unknown.

Studies show that tokophobia has been associated with anxiety proneness in general. Some experts may even diagnose it as depression, anxiety or PTSD in cases where fear is triggered by a traumatic event like an earlier life-threatening childbirth experience.

While fear of giving birth is normal, when do common pregnancy jitters become something more?

Women with tokophobia may experience nightmares, sweating or crying at the thought of giving birth. Some even have a visceral reaction at the sight of a pregnant women.

This can lead a woman to request an elective c-section. Some women never overcome their fear of childbirth and either adopt or remain childless (even when they desperately wanted a baby). In extreme cases, a woman will ask to terminate a wanted pregnancy rather than go through childbirth.

While tokophobia wasn’t always openly discussed, in more recent years women have started to open up about their fears. In 2007, actor Helen Mirren revealed that she watched a film about childbirth at age 13 that traumatized her so much that she never wanted children.

There’s an assumption that women are supposed to be joyful about giving birth. This leads many women to feel shame if they view it otherwise. First-time moms, in particular, know that the act of giving birth is painful and not much else.

If you have always dreamt of having a baby but are too afraid, you can work to overcome your fears.

First, it’s important to clear up misconceptions. Educate yourself about pregnancy and childbirth to put fears in perspective. Avoid giving in to shocking or scary childbirth stories in the media and from other women (even your own mother can put ideas in your head!).

Also, talk about your fears with your doctor, your family and friends. Go for therapy and counseling with a mental health professional and address any underlying anxiety disorders or mood disorders. Consider taking a childbirth class with a mindfulness component, where you can learn positive visualizations and guided meditations to help you relax during delivery.

Worried about how you will cope with labor pain? There are a number of ways to reduce pain and improve your labor experience. Learn 8 options for a more comfortable labor.

Preparing for pregnancy class: Join us at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 4 at Elmhurst Hospital, as obstetrician-gynecologist Jeffrey Fitzer, M.D., talks about how to increase your odds of becoming pregnant and having a healthy, happy pregnancy. Register now.

Learn more about pregnancy and baby services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

If your fears about childbirth become overwhelming, get help at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

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