Last week, parts of the internet were aflame with new research suggesting that social media -- in particular expectant parent forums -- is partly responsible for increasing women's fear of childbirth. Senior research fellow Catriona Jones of University of Hull, United Kingdom, came up with this finding while investigating the causes of tokophobia, a severe fear of pregnancy and childbirth.
Jones suggests that the sharing of horror stories and gruesome details about birth on social media platforms -- especially births that were difficult or involved complications -- can be harmful and scary to people who have never given birth, and may play a role in causing tokophobia, which has been on the rise since 2000. Currently tokophobia, a fear that can drive some people to avoid pregnancy and birth altogether or schedule a cesarean, affects about 14 percent of women.
The backlash toward Jones' suggestion has been fiercely vocal. Both parents and organizations who run online parenting sites and forums, including the chief executive of the popular UK parents' site Mumsnet, feel strongly that sharing real stories about birth is just what pregnant parents need to feel prepared for the reality and possibilities in childbirth. The group argues that so many people who have gone through birth end up saying "Why didn't anyone tell me this was a possibility?" or "I had no idea this could happen." People and organizations who promote the use of online communities and story sharing believe that the information empowers more than it harms.
The truth is that sharing negative or scary stories about birth can cause or increase fear, and it is a recognized cause of tocophobia. Does that mean we should (or will) stop? Some people are naturally predisposed to having the phobia, with or without hearing difficult stories. There are also many people who take comfort in knowing all there is to know -- the bad, the good, and the downright ugly -- about childbirth, with the premise that knowing as many possibilities as they can will help avoid the helpless feeling of being caught off guard if something difficult should happen during their own birth. On the flip side, many parents say that "sugar coating" or glossing over the reality of childbirth and possible complications is not helpful or empowering.
But there still lies the issue of fear. Regardless of how many stories they hear, many people who have never given birth develop a fear of the unknown and unfamiliar that is childbirth. Fear in and of itself is not necessarily harmful -- in fact, fear exists to protect and keep us safe. But when fear grows to an unmanageable size, it can be overwhelming and sometimes, incapacitating, neither of which are helpful in feeling confident and comfortable in labor and birth.
Negative, scary, or intense stories of childbirth may be important or for some people to hear. Without a larger context and understanding of childbirth, however, there is space for fear to grow. When you take a quality childbirth class during pregnancy (ideally in your third trimester), you learn all the ins and outs (and ups and downs) of labor and birth, as well as potential and common complications including why they happen, warning signs, tips for prevention, and what can be done if it happens to you. In fact, recent research has shown that taking a childbirth class can improve a person's satisfaction with their birth experience, and may impact the likelihood of having a vaginal birth instead of cesarean.
Learning about the facts of childbirth, in combination with reading real-life stories, may be the key to reducing fear and increasing confidence in childbirth.