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Is social media driving a fear of childbirth?

The sharing of birth stories on social media was just one of the highlights of the British Science Festival at the University of Hull that attracted media attention around the world.

Our experts in the psychological impact of pregnancy and childbirth, who focused their presentation for the festival last month on the fear of childbirth, explored the ‘normal’ anxieties relating to childbirth and also discussed ways to help and support those women who may have an extreme pathological fear of giving birth – tokophobia.

Ever since the festival they have been invited by media such as BBC World News and Radio 4’s Woman's Hour to continue the discussions relating to whether social media is driving a fear of childbirth.

An opinion poll on the website of the International Forum for Wellbeing in Pregnancy is now asking readers to respond to whether social media can cause a fear of childbirth. Take the survey here.

Julie Jomeen, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and Professor of Midwifery at the University of Hull, has an international reputation for perinatal mental health research built on 20 years of work focused on developing high quality care for all women.

Perinatal mental health problems occur during pregnancy or in the first year following the birth of a child. Perinatal mental illness affects up to 20% of women, and covers a wide range of conditions. If left untreated, it can have significant and long lasting effects on the woman and her family.

Professor Jomeen said:

“Tokophobia – the name for an extreme and pathological fear of childbirth – and whether social media is contributing to womens’ anxieties and fears about childbirth more generally is a story that has resonated around the world and continues to do so. Discussions have opened up in hundreds of forums from mums’ online networks to the BMJ (British Medical Journal),  encouraging women (and men) to give their personal views and reflect on their experiences of childbirth, whether they are positive or traumatic.

“The sharing of birth experiences appears to be really important for some women. And certainly, some of our research has shown that like-minded peer support mechanisms, that facilitate the sharing of experiences, have been found to be extremely helpful for women who experience perinatal mental health problems.”*

Ongoing research at the University of Hull includes the development of a pathway in response to a need for early detection and treatment of fear of childbirth that goes beyond ‘normal’ levels.

Catriona Jones, Senior Researcher Fellow in Maternal and Reproductive Health, who has worked alongside Professor Julie Jomeen for 10 years on perinatal mental health research and the development of advanced healthcare for women and whose original comments about the ‘tsunami of horror stories’ were the trigger for discussions about the sharing of birth stories, said:

“Good perinatal mental health services are vital. We need clear strategies in place for screening and identification, prediction, referral, and follow-up.  

“The work we have undertaken over the last 10 years has highlighted the importance of training health professionals in screening/detection, identification and prediction of perinatal mental health problems in women, so they know what to do when a woman’s emotional wellbeing or mental health status causes concern.”

Professor Julie Jomeen, who was inspired to drive improvements for better healthcare for expecting mums after spending her early career as a midwife, said:

“Early detection and treatment are vital across the perinatal period to ensure optimum maternal, neonatal and mental health outcomes for patients and their families.

“By providing high quality care for all women, we can diminish the chances of women developing tokophobia after their first birth and also the amount of negative birthing stories that women are sharing.”

Reflecting on the discussions that have resulted from their presentation on the Fear of Childbirth at the British Science Festival, Professor Jomeen said:

“We have drawn attention to an overlooked condition – and the response has been remarkable. Women have been in touch to thank us for talking about the issue. They told us they didn’t get pregnant because of their fears, that if they’d known people who’d have helped them throughout pregnancy it would have made a big difference.

“My main hope is that as a result of the media spotlight that has focused on this fear of childbirth, we will be able to continue to increase awareness, build on our research and create the support and healthcare services for women that they and their families can rely on.”

"I am so not looking forward to giving birth, its keeping me up at night, I feel ill at the thought. Midwives don't seem to care or take me seriously when I tell them I am terrified. And I’ve spoken to other women in my birth class – they’ve said they’re a bit worried, but they don’t seem to be scared like me – they’re not panicking every day at the thought of it.  I feel so lonely and isolated ‘cos no-one ‘gets it’.  I am 36 weeks and the closer to my due date, the more frightened I get ..."

Expecting Mum

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