How Fear Affects Labor and What You Can Do About It

by Debra Flashenberg, IMI Advisory Board Member and Guest Blogger

During a recent yoga class I was taking, my teacher discussed our  natural reaction to fear. She explained that students tend to make their poses smaller and constrict themselves when they are fearful of doing  the pose.  For example, they are afraid to shift their weight forward  off their feet and into their hands for arm balances.  Or, they keep  their arms close to their head for wheel poses instead of letting the  pose have some space.  By getting physically smaller in the pose, we  decrease the chances of successfully manifesting the actual posture.

I started thinking about how this concept relates to childbirth.  In  my last blog, “Breathing For Labor”, I talked about the body’s reaction  to fear.  It goes into the ‘fight or flight” mode, releasing adrenalin  into the blood flow and reduces the function of oxytocin, halting labor.  The laboring mother is constricting, becoming small, when the exact  opposite is needed for labor.  The mother needs to focus on getting big-  a big open cervix!  I once had a doula client repeating the mantra “I  can open so big” (referring to her cervix).

The well known midwife, Ina May Gaskin, refers to this phenomenon as  the “Sphincter Law”.  She explains that the sphincters in the body don’t respond well to pressure or fear. Instead of opening up, they close up  even tighter.  Think about it-  If you were told to have an orgasm on  the spot, would your body be able to relax and open, or would feel  pressured, smaller and tighter?  Likely the second. That is the  sphincter law. The cervix is a sphincter and does not respond well to  fear or pressure.

Knowing this basic law of physiology, what are some ways to help remove fear from the birthing equation?

First and foremost, it is important to help build the mother’s  confidence in her body and ability to birth.  A woman’s confidence is  enhanced or hindered by those around her.  If the people she chooses to  be part of her birth experience believe in her abilities, she will feel  more supported and believe in herself.  Here are some additional  thoughts to help reduce fear:

1. Choose your “posse” well! Knowing that those around can influence how the mother feels about her  experience, consider the people involved.  Are these people supportive  of the choices you are making for your birth?  Will they be telling  their own stories about their birth experience, or be open to seeing and listening to what is happening in the present moment?  Will they help  empower you?  Are they knowledgeable about the birth process and can  they help alleviate stress or fear should it arise?

2. Choose Your “care provider” well. I once attended a birth of woman going through a natural delivery.  She  had just moved into the depth of active labor and was working to find a  pain management technique she could use.  The doctor said out loud- “I  don’t know why you are going through a natural birth!  I want an  epidural for my yearly pap smear.”  This kind of statement can be  undermining for the woman trying to work through the birth process.  It  is important to find a provider who is aligned with your birth  philosophy.

Another point to consider when finding a care provider is their  specialty.  If the care provider mainly works with high risk women, they will likely follow those protocols. If you are low risk, you likely do  not need the same amount of intervention.  It may feel overwhelming to  have a very medicalized birth if it is not necessary.

3. Choose the right place to birth This follows the same idea as choosing the right care provider.  Does  the hospital have very high rates of cesarean births or labor  inductions? Does that seem overwhelming or frightening to you?   If so,  you may want to consider a place that practices with fewer routine  interventions.

4. Read positive birth stories and stay away from scary TV shows. The media is packed with TV shows that portray birth as a dramatic,  scarey event.  If you stumble upon those shows, CHANGE THE CHANNEL! The  same goes for listening to unpleasant birth stories of friends and  family.  While I was pregnant, my mother-in-law loved to tell me about  how hard it was to birth my husband’s broad shoulders.  This did not  help my confidence leading up to my birth.  “In a recent survey, women  were asked to rate their fear of birth before reading positive birth  stories, and again three weeks after reading birth stories. Participants reported an average of 33% less fear after they read empowering  stories” (Midwifery Today pg. 31 Winter 2007).

For some positive birth stories, you can read the first part of “Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth” or visit and read wonderful stories from our community.

Happy birthing!

About Debra

Debra, founder of Prenatal Yoga Center in NYC,  has studied with renowned prenatal yoga teacher Colette Crawford, R.N., at the Seattle Holistic Center. Debra has received certification for Vinyasa Yoga from Shiva Rea as well as completed the OM Yoga advanced teacher training with Cyndi Lee in 2004. Debra has also studied the Maternal Fitness Method with Julie Tupler. Debra currently studies with Cyndi Lee, Genevieve Kapular, and Carrie Owerko. In 2006, Debra received her certification as a Lamaze® Certified Childbirth Educator. In September of 2007, Debra completed a Midwife Assistant Program with Ina May Gaskin, Pamela Hunt and many of the other Farm Midwives at The Farm Midwifery Center in Tennessee.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of  the International Maternity Institute.



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