Thursday 22 February 2018

'My mortal fear of childbirth led to a panic attack mid-labour'

Fear overcome: Fran Benson and her
children Sam (centre), Jack and Poppy
Fear overcome: Fran Benson and her children Sam (centre), Jack and Poppy

Fran Benson

Mum-of-three Fran Benson reveals how she survived the physical and mental trauma of tokophobia

Even after nine years, the words written by the midwife on my "progress of labour" notes still shock me. "Fran becoming increasingly distressed. Fran says she wants to die -- doesn't care about baby -- her worst nightmare is coming true."

I don't remember saying those words. I do remember thinking that if I smashed the glass beside my bed and raked the edges through my wrists the midwives would finally believe how frightened I was.

As far back as I can remember, I have had an overwhelming dread of pregnancy and birth. I have no idea where the fear came from, but, illogically, I feared that giving birth would kill me. I would get anxious if anyone talked about their birth experiences, and I often felt uncomfortable in the company of pregnant women.

My disorder, called tokophobia, is thought to affect between 5pc and 20pc of pregnant women. Now new research from Norway, published last week, has shown that women who are phobic about birth are more at risk of a prolonged labour.

The study, published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, found that for women afraid of childbirth, labour lasted an average eight hours, compared to just over six hours for other women.

Those anxious about birth were also more likely to have interventions such as forceps or emergency caesareans.

This is exactly what happened to me. For a long time I hadn't even wanted children. But when I got married in 1999, in my early 30s, I knew that my husband, Ian, was keen to have a family and I agreed that we would try for a baby. One day.

I fell pregnant in 2002 -- a time when tokophobia was less recognised than it is today. The only person who took me seriously was Kristina Hofberg, a psychiatrist who was one of the first doctors to research and document the condition.

She formally diagnosed tokophobia and through her, Ian and I learned about what to do should I panic during labour, panic attacks being a common symptom of the condition. If I had one, Ian was to get close to me and tell me to look at him and breathe slowly, to match his own breathing.

Early in labour, I went into hospital. I was a little nervous and a little excited. I had noted my phobia in my birth plan and stated that if possible I wanted to avoid an episiotomy or a forceps or ventouse (vacuum device) delivery. I was going to try for a natural birth if possible, with the option of a caesarean if my phobia got out of control.

The midwives were supportive and encouraging in the first stage of labour, and I made it through with gas and air and pethidine. But just as I entered the second stage and started to push, the midwives' shift ended and a new set arrived.

The new ones didn't read the birth plan and didn't take my phobia seriously. They were busily urging me to push but suddenly I began to lose confidence. When I tried to explain about my phobia, one of them shouted: "How did you think this baby was going to come out?"

At this, I had a panic attack. My fear of dying, under control so far, returned with a vengeance. I was hysterical and hyperventilating, and despite Ian's best efforts, my labour ground to a halt.

I was told a caesarean would be dangerous, and eventually I had to have an epidural to remove all sensation and a ventouse to get the baby out.

Some 19 hours after I'd arrived at hospital, and more than five hours in the second stage, my son, Sam, was finally born. Thankfully, he was healthy.

Four years later, I was pregnant with my second child. This time around I used natal hypnotherapy to try to overcome my fears. I listened to CDs every day advising how to relax and prepare for birth.

This helped enormously. I decided I wanted, if possible, a home birth. I didn't decide this lightly: only after reading research which showed that at home, someone like me was more likely to be relaxed and have a natural birth, without the interventions I dreaded.

And that's what I had. The birth was short and uncomplicated. Unlike the first time round, I was focused and relaxed and even when it got tough I never lost faith in myself. Jack was born in a birthing pool in our dining room. It took less than four hours.

I'm not saying that home birth is the best thing for tokophobia in all cases, but it certainly worked for me.

My third pregnancy the following year looked as if it would be a cinch. My second birth had conquered my fear.This should have been the simple one: when my waters broke one morning, we expected our baby to arrive by dinnertime. But 24 hours later my contractions were weak and intermittent. Admitted to hospital to check the baby's heart rate, I was so exhausted I decided to stay.

Two hours into the second stage, our daughter was no closer to being born. Her head was facing towards my hip and she couldn't fit through my pelvis. I ended up opting for an epidural and a forceps delivery to turn the baby -- but this time the decision was made from a place of calm rather than fear.

At 8pm our daughter, Poppy, shot into the world and the registrar got to work sewing up a small tear. "Just a couple of stitches," he said.

It turned out to be more than that. With all the pushing, my veins had become swollen. It's not uncommon in labour, but they normally shrink back once the baby is born. Mine didn't. With every stitch the tissue tore and I bled, profusely.

Suddenly the alarms rang and there were people everywhere. Drips were set up, drugs administered and sachets of blood appeared for the transfusion I desperately needed: I'd lost three litres of blood. I was wrapped in a foil blanket as my body went into shock. Ian sat in the corner cradling Poppy.

After two hours I was in the high dependency unit for regular monitoring; 24 hours later I was moved to a postnatal ward. Everything was going to be fine.

Three years on and my lovely children are now, nine, four and three. Many women have a birth horror story to tell. Or, at the other end of the scale, a romantic story of birthing at home with tea lights and lavender oil. I've got one of each, and a spare.

I sometimes wish that I had overcome my fear earlier. Then Sam's birth may have been a shorter, gentler experience, like his brother's.

As for Poppy, it only goes to show that however much we prepare, sometimes things happen that are beyond our control. I'm glad that this time round I was calm enough to handle it.

Irish Independent

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