Mumsnet “horror stories” could be one reason why some women suffer from a pathological terror of childbirth, a leading expert and midwife has said.
Tocophobia is a mental condition defined as a severe fear or dread of childbirth.
It affects an estimated 14% of women, and can be serious enough to prompt requests for Caesarean deliveries and abortions.
Research suggests that worldwide, rates of the disorder have been rising since 2000.
Catriona Jones, a lecturer in midwifery at the University of Hull – who has studied tocophobia, believes social media is partly to blame for the phenomenon.
Speaking at the British Science Festival, taking place at the university, she said: “You just have to Google childbirth and you’re met with a tsunami of horror stories.
“If you go onto any of the Mumsnet forums there are women telling their stories of childbirth – oh, it was terrible, it was a blood-bath, this and that happened. I think that can be quite frightening for women to engage with and read about.
“I wouldn’t say social media is leading women to be afraid of childbirth, but it plays a part.”
Tocophobic fear of childbirth fell on a wide spectrum of emotions, only the severest of which were diagnosed as a medical condition, Ms Jones explained.
Taking into account those who do not meet the clinical threshold for diagnosis, the proportion of women with the problem could be as high as 30%, she said.
The actress Dame Helen Mirren displayed evidence of childbirth fear brought on by seeing something off-putting – so-called primary tocophobia, according to Ms Jones
She said: “Helen Mirren said she was shown a sex education video at school that horrified her so much she decided she was never going to have children.”
Tocophobia led women to request Caesarean births, but was not the reason why Caesarean rates were rising, she believed. This was because the requests were not always granted. Instead the women were referred to specialist care.
However, childbirth fear was likely to be resulting in more abortions.
“Women do talk about terminating their pregnancies because they are so fearful,” Ms Jones said.
Treatment for tocophobia included cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), one-to-one educational sessions with midwives, and “graded exposure” – a process that involves having access to labour rooms or operating theatres in a non-threatening way.
Julie Jomeen, Professor of Midwifery and Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Hull, said: “Tocophobia is a modern-day phenomenon. Some of these women really think they are going to die.
“Two hundred years ago people accepted that they might die from childbirth. Today we expect childbirth to be safe.”
Justine Roberts, founder and chief executive of Mumsnet, said: “Mumsnet users are, in the main, impatient with the idea that adult women aren’t entitled to discover the truth about the full spectrum of birth experiences, from the blissful to the terrifying.
“Understandably, a great deal of NHS messaging about labour focuses on the positive, but the downside of this is that mothers who have traumatic experiences feel, in retrospect, that they were given a deeply partial account: one of the most common complaints we see on this topic is ‘Why on earth didn’t anyone tell me the truth about how bad it could be?”