Common Fears About Giving Birth—and How to Cope

By Published On: February 22nd, 2022
Home > Labor & Delivery > Common Fears About Giving Birth—and How to Cope

Fear of childbirth is very common amongst pregnant women, but take heart—labor isn't an all-out fright fest. Learn what your worst fears really look like, and why they're not so bad.

Your D-day is coming, and no matter how much you’re looking forward to meeting your baby, you can’t help but come a little unhinged thinking about the birth process. (It’s understandable, with all the traumatic birth stories you hear from well-meaning family and friends looking out for you and baby.) But don’t let stress get the best of you! Here’s the lowdown on top labor concerns, so you can feel more confident walking into the big day.

I worry I won’t be able to differentiate between real and false labor.

Toward the end of your third trimester, you might get contractions that don’t lead to labor. Also called Braxton Hicks contractions or false labor, these low-level, irregular contractions are helping prep your body for the real deal (think of them as a dress rehearsal), but they can easily trick you into thinking it’s go time, especially for a first time mom.

If you’re having contractions—tense, cramping sensations—try changing positions. Lie on your side, and see if they go away. If the contractions don’t demand your full attention, try distracting yourself. Do some last-minute nesting, go on a date with your partner, or go for a walk.

When your contractions become more regular in frequency and increase in intensity, it’s time to give your OB-GYN a call and head to the hospital or birth center. “People are scared about coming into triage and being sent home, but you won’t get scolded. We don’t get upset about false alarms,” promises Leslie Bloom, a labor and delivery nurse at Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Imagining what labor pains will feel like keeps me up at night.

Enduring countless labor horror stories from other moms is par for the pregnancy course. And unfortunately, those who had a positive birth usually aren’t the most vocal. It’s no wonder that anxiety about your first birth can skyrocket by the time the due date arrives. Will contractions hurt? Yes, but how much depends on the stage of labor, your pain tolerance, your body and your baby’s body, and even how scared you are.

“Fear of giving birth creates tension, and tension increases pain,” warns Kate Stroud, a birth doula in Ypsilanti, Michigan. “If you’re fearful, you can also slow your labor down.” Instead of obsessing over potential discomfort, learn pain relief techniques to help you cope, like meditation and breathing methods.

Additionally, read up on different pain management medications available to you during delivery such as an epidural. (Don’t worry: You don’t have to commit to a decision on whether you want pain medication yet—you can see how labor goes and make the final call on any interventions when it’s game time.)

Also, keep in mind that labor pain has a purpose and an end; trust your body to get you through it. “Just like your body knows how to grow this baby, your body also knows how to birth the baby,” Stroud assures. “It inherently knows how to do labor.”

I’ll be mortified if I poop on the delivery table.

Of course no one wants their No. 1 to witness them do a No. 2, but it is a perfectly normal part of childbirth. You’re using the same muscles to push a baby out as you do to have a bowel movement. (Think about how often bodily functions come up in medical care. These professionals are used to it and not grossed out.)

“The way I see it is if you are pooping on the table, I know you are pushing properly,” says Bloom.

But is there any way to avoid it? Well, poop can stay in the body as long as 48 hours after your last meal. So sipping broth and smoothies while in early labor isn’t going to prevent it from happening.

However, if you’re really troubled by the thought, you can give yourself an enema before heading to the hospital. Even that’s not a guarantee, though.

Whatever you do, don’t let your phobia force you to hold back while pushing. “My fear of pooping on the delivery table almost changed the course of my delivery,” says Melanie Hoagland, mom in Shawnee, Kansas. “I was trying so hard to push, yet not do it too hard. After more than two hours, I was told I had two more pushes and then we were going to have to move to a C-section. You can bet I pushed like a crazy woman then—and got the baby out in two pushes! Avoiding embarrassment was not worth getting a cesarean if I didn’t have to.”

I know I’ll be devastated if my birth plan isn’t followed.

Creating a birth plan can be an important step in helping you feel more in control of your labor and delivery experience and getting you, your birth partner and your health care provider in agreement before the birth actually takes place.

Instead of handing the birth plan over to your nurse, use it to start a conversation, advises Stroud. It’s a great way to get everyone feeling like they are on the same team, and it might also prompt your nurse to share the hospital’s standard of care protocols with you.

“A lot of birth plans have things in them that are standard hospital procedure now, like delayed cord clamping, immediate skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding,” reports Bloom.

Remaining flexible about the route your delivery takes is also key to having the best birthing experience. Says Bloom, “It’s OK to request what you want or ask questions about different ways to do things. But, when a mom has determined down to the last detail how she wants her birth experience to go and won’t be happy unless it goes the way she planned, she’ll inevitably be disappointed. Ultimately, your baby decides how the birth will go.”

I’m afraid of tearing or getting an episiotomy.

This one fills a lot of moms with dread—and makes us want to cover our crotches in angst. But in reality, it’s not as bad as it sounds. An episiotomy (an incision made around the vaginal opening to widen it) is no longer a routine procedure. It’s typically only used now in special circumstances, like when a baby needs to be delivered quickly or is in an abnormal position.

Tears, however, occur in at least 40 percent of women, according to the Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health.

“A number of things determine if a woman will tear such as the size of the baby, her vaginal capacity and the amount of control during the time of delivery,” says Lauren Streicher, MD, associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

For example, one strategy OBs routinely use involves allowing the baby’s head to remain in the crowning position for a bit in order to fully stretch the vaginal opening, rather than quickly pushing the baby out and potentially tearing. “Sometimes having an epidural makes it easier for you to control your urge to push and follow your doctor’s direction, reducing the chance of tearing,” notes Streicher.

Another preventative measure entails pushing in an upright position, like kneeling in bed or on all fours. Stroud explains these positions use gravity to the mother’s advantage, helping the pelvic joints open up and making it easier for the baby to pass. Even if you do end up tearing, you probably won’t feel it happening in the moment. Streicher explains that the pressure of your child’s head on your nerves down there numbs the area. After delivery, your care provider can quickly stitch up any tears as needed. (Before you wince at the thought, know that if you haven’t already had an epidural, your doctor will administer a local anesthetic to ensure the process is painless.)

Labor is a big deal, and rightfully so. You’re bringing a new person into the world. Having an appreciation for the miraculous work your body intuitively does (and setting your sights on future cuddle sessions) can help ease anxieties. Says Stroud, “I try to help women work through the fear of letting go—realizing this is something so much bigger than themselves.”