Personally, I’m addicted to self-help seminars and just about anything that involves talking about your feelings. I have found that releasing deep seated fears opens us up for boundless possibilities. In particular, I’ve been fascinated at how important fear release can be to promoting a successful birth. I have seen first-hand how a woman’s fears can actually cause a physical slow-down of labor often leading to the dreaded ‘failure to progress.’ Releasing those fears, even during the labor progress can often ‘unstick’ women leading to quicker easier more pleasurable births.

Fear And The Failure To Progress

The effect of fear on the laboring mother often manifests itself as a stop in labor or a ‘failure to progress’. Looking into the animal kingdom we see that when an animal in the wild is in labor and perceives a physical threat, she is able to arrest the labor until she is able to seek a safer place to give birth.

That’s right, she is able to stop contractions, stop the descent of the baby down her uterus and stop her cervix from continuing to dilate. It’s an instinct.

It should be no surprise that a similar reaction happens when laboring women enter a place they perceive as unsafe, often the hospital.

The hospital, as well as the obstetrician, can create a nervous environment where the woman suddenly feels a loss of power or decision making. She enters a place most often known as a hotbed for the infirmed, is made to sit in a wheel chair (making her feel small and forcing her to look up at those around her) and her clothes are taken away (she is stripped of her identity). These events often create the same instinctive response toward potential danger ie. an arrest in labor (Odent, 2002).

This phenomenon is difficult for many Westerners to understand as it necessitates an understanding of the mind-body connection. Our society, particularly the medical branches, tend to think of the mind as completely distinct from the body.

The very real connection, however, is impossible to ignore. Scientific studies indicate that “these feelings heighten the perception of pain, and they can help elevate stress hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline), which may slow or stop contractions” (Klaus, Kennel and Klaus 1993: 144).

hospital bedAdrenaline is the last thing we want in labor, it is the nemesis of oxytocin, the naturally produced hormone that stimulates uterine contractions (Gaskin 2003).

Another set of hormones released when a women senses fear is catecholamines (ie. epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine). Not shockingly, these are the same hormones that are one of the key players in fetal distress. These catecholamines (fear hormones) actually pass through the uterus and disrupt the environment of the baby.

This means fear can be a very big component of not only ‘failure to progress’ but ‘fetal distress’ the two most feared phrases for a woman hoping to avoid a c-section.

Although I can talk for days about the typical hospital environment and it’s contributor to the fear-factor for a laboring mother, the truth is it isn’t the only one.

For most women, birth, labor and motherhood can ignite some of our biggest fears. These fears include the labor itself, the challenges of motherhood or other more personal situations. Here are some birth stories that include fear and the possibility for progress once those fears are alleviated.

Fear Birth Stories

Birth Story #1

Jenny was birthing beautifully when she entered the hospital. She was checked and found to be 7 centimeters dilated. Her husband received a phone call from a frantic mother-in-law and a knock a few moments later revealed that the mother-in-law had arrived. She turned the lights on as she walked in and began to criticize Jenny’s choices of birthing position demanding that she lay on the bed in supine position for the sake of the baby. Jenny’s labor stopped completely for the next few hours until the mother-in-law decided to go out for a quick bite to eat. During this time Jenny was able to voice her hurt to her husband and doula and even cried at her inner feelings of failure for not progressing as she thought she should. Not a moment before she dried her last tears, a deep grunt was heard from Jenny announcing the arrival of her baby. A health baby boy was born no more than 30 minutes later.

A metal toggle switch with plate reading Open Mind and Closed MiBirthing Story #2

Mercedes was laboring her first baby. Some time during the labor her progress halted. Her doctor, tired of waiting, kept coming in to tell her that if she didn’t get things moving, a c-section would be inevitable. Hoping to avoid the c-section, the doula tried different massages, positions and other techniques to try to get things started. Nothing helped. The doctor came in to tell them they were going to start preparing for a cesarean. Tired and out of ideas the doula looked over at her client who sat melancholy on her birth ball and asked naively, “whats on your mind?” Mercedes broke into tears and began to tell about her abusive boyfriend and the guilt that she felt in bringing this child into the world.** She let herself cry until she had nothing left, and the baby was born vaginally moments later.

Birthing Story #3

Esther was a natural birthing expert. She had birthed all six of her babies naturally and was planning to do the same for the seventh. To her surprise labor stopped right at the height of it all. Both she and the doula were stunned. This had never happened before in all of her labors. She chose to birth at home and simply couldn’t understand what could be blocking her. Esther, her doula, and the midwife brainstormed to see what could be blocking her. Esther finally revealed that her husband and her had not yet figured out where they were going to put this baby. She was living in a 3 bedroom with six children and just felt like there was no room for another. Esther spoke with her husband privately and figured out how to make more room by putting a mattress underneath the bunk beds. Esther was relieved to now have somewhere to add her new addition and her baby girl was born in water within the hour.

These stories relieve the importance of being emotionally prepared for birth, but how are you going to make this happen for yourself?

How To Deal With Fear Before Birth

If you complete these three easy steps you will likely find yourself in a fear-free place at the time of your birth. This will greatly increase your chances of having a smooth easy birth free of any unnatural ‘stops’.

  1. Find a good care provider and birthing location that makes you feel calm when you think about them.
  2. Create a supportive birth team. This could include a mother, sister, doula or husband. Skip anyone who stresses you out. This is about you and your baby not about who wants to be there to take pictures.
  3. DEAL WITH THE EMOTIONS BEFORE BIRTH: Do whatever it takes. Write about it. Meditate. Sing about it. Dance it out. Laugh it out. Cry it out. I personally do a fear release workshop in my HypnoBirthing classes as well as some fear release work with my doula clients. I think it is essential for my clients to talk it out and breathe it out. Accepting the fears and letting them be tends to help women’s bodies to work more effectively at the time of labor.



** This type of situation is something that a doula would likely turn over to a competent care provider or social worker to try to help the girl out of this harmful situation.


Gaskin, Ina May. 2003. Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. New York: Bantam Books.

Klaus, Marshall, Kennel, John and Phyllis Klaus. 1993. Mothering the Mother: How a Doula can Help You Have a Shorter, Easier and Healthier Birth. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Books.

Odent, Michel. 2002. The Farmer and the Obstetrician. New York: Free Association Books.