By Grace Marner, British Science Festival

For many women, the prospect of having a baby can be a daunting one. But for some, this fear can be all-consuming. Grace Marner reports from the Fear of childbirth talk at this year's British Science Festival.

It’s quite reasonable that many women would be anxious at the prospect of having to push something the size of a watermelon out of them, but for those with fears on a phobic level, pregnancy may be something they avoid altogether.

Tocophobia is the fear of pregnancy and giving birth.

The sorts of anxieties and fears these women may have include:

  • Panicking so much they may not be able to listen to the midwives and doctors
  • The midwives and doctors won’t be sympathetic
  • They won’t be able to tolerate the pain
  • Not being able to breathe
  • They won’t be able to push
  • Giving birth in an alien environment.

But the most significant fear is that they’re afraid that they will die.

The most common way to deal with a phobia is avoidance. This means that those who have tocophobia may avoid relationships, pregnancy, talking about pregnancy, or being around pregnant women.

For those at the most extreme end of the spectrum, suicide, self-harm or termination are the only ways they can see getting out of their situation if they do become pregnant.

But how can we distinguish between who has a normal level of fear and who needs a little more help?

Health professionals can measure the levels of fear by using two tests:

The WIGMA scale - a 33 question measure, which isn’t the best system when you’re usually confined to a short 15 minute appointment, and the new ‘fear of birth’ scale – two questions that measure the patient’s worries on a scale of 1 to 100.

From there, the midwives and doctors can create a plan to help reduce the patient's stress.

Most women need a more detailed understanding of the changes to their body, what’s really going to happen during birth and the differences between having a C-section and a natural birth.

Creating an early birth plan, building trust by having continuity of your care provider and visiting the birth environment and anaesthetist are all ways that can help a woman through tocophobia.

It’s clear that not all women have a happy pregnancy and as a society, we are slowly starting to break down the barriers to enable women to feel able to talk about their fears.

By screening more women for tocophobia, a healthier environment for a baby to be brought into will be created.

Pregnancy doesn’t have to be enjoyed by everyone, but it shouldn’t be filled with fear.

Kate Burt, who suffered from tocophobia during her pregnancy in 2017, spoke at the British Science Festival’s Fear of Childbirth talk.

She said:

“I found tocophobia a very lonely and frightening experience. It can prevent you from enjoying any aspect of the pregnancy you’re having.

“I never thought I would be able to have a baby due to the fear and anxiety I felt around birth, let alone being able to stand here today and say that my daughters birth went really well, but honestly it did!

“I felt safe, it was calm and it was planned.

“I’ve been able to be the mum that I wanted to be to my daughter.”

With the help of perinatal teams like Hull’s, the nine months of pregnancy and the inevitable pain of childbirth often later become insignificant when you finally feel your baby in your arms.

Find out more about the British Science Festival here.