Pregnancy and childbirth are wonderful experiences for the majority of women, but it’s not the same story for every mother-to-be.

It’s normal to feel a little anxiety prior to giving birth, especially if doing so for the first time, but studies show that the prospect is intensely frightening for many women.

This condition is known as tokophobia, and it is now classed as a psychological disorder. Should you or someone you know be a sufferer, here’s all you need to know.

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So, what is tokophobia exactly, and why is it called that?

Tokophobia is a pathological fear of pregnancy which can lead to avoidance of childbirth. Primary tokophobia is found in women who have no previous experience of pregnancy. For sufferers, fear of childbirth may start well before pregnancy – even as early as adolescence.

Secondary tokophobia is fear of childbirth that develops after a traumatic event in a previous pregnancy.

The name comes from the Greek tokos, meaning childbirth, and phobos, meaning fear. A 2003 study undertaken in Finland, Sweden, and the UK found that tokophobia was the reason given for between 7% and 22% of caesarean births.

What causes tokophobia?

There are various possible reasons for fear of childbirth. These include fear of potential pain, experience of a traumatic previous birth (either personal or in a family member or friend), previous gynaecological or sexual trauma, and clinical depression or anxiety.

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Studies have shown that a small number of women even abort their pregnancies to avoid going through what they believe will be the traumatic experience of childbirth – while an estimated one in 10 childless women have avoided pregnancy because of their fears. 

What can be done if I, or a relative or friend, are suffering from tokophobia?

Talk to a doctor, midwife or other healthcare professional about your fears, as early in your pregnancy as possible. They can try to allay your fears, and refer you onto a specialist in mental health support for pregnant women if necessary.

Dr Patrick O'Brien, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says: “Women should be offered counselling, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, to help them address their fears, and be given the opportunity to talk through their concerns with their doctor." 

If you, your friend or relative are still experiencing anxiety or fear as you approach your due date, you can talk to your GP or midwife about the possibility of a planned caesarean section birth.