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13 Common Labor and Delivery Fears (and Facts to Quell Your Concerns)

From pooping to tearing, we go inside the delivery room to put some of your top childbirth and postpartum fears to rest.
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Updated April 1, 2024
pregnant woman in hospital bed during labor and delivery
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There’s no sugarcoating it—childbirth is hard. And with so many potential twists and turns, chances are, you’ll be in for a few surprises no matter how much you plan for the big day. So it’s only natural to feel a little scared or anxious, whether this is your first or third baby. Suffice it to say, there are some common and universal labor and delivery fears that most moms-to-be and pregnant people face. But the good news is that many of these can be allayed with a little bit of prep work during pregnancy. Read on as real moms share some of their worries around giving birth—and experts break down whether or not these things are really worth stressing over.

Making It to the Hospital in Time

“I was scheduled to deliver at a hospital that was already 45 minutes away from my home, so that certainly added to my anxiety about ‘making it there’ on time in the midst of terrible pain,” says Heather, mom and founder of the blog ThetaMom.com. Many women worry they’ll deliver in an elevator, in a cab or on the side of the road. Movies and media have tricked us into believing that labor is a quick-moving process, and that these precarious situations are the norm. And while it’s certainly not impossible, it’s also not that common.

According to Mayo Clinic, active labor generally lasts anywhere from four to eight hours. While that may not sound like good news, statistically it means your chances of delivering baby en route to the hospital are pretty slim.

Plus, there will be plenty of warning signs that it’s time to head to the hospital well before baby starts to make their way down the birth canal. These may include consistent and painful contractions or having your water break. Even if you’re having a particularly speedy labor, timing your contractions will help you gauge roughly how long you have until baby arrives, says Paul Quinn, PhD, CNM, FACNM, a women’s health nurse practitioner with over 30 years of experience. (When you get down to five-minute intervals or less, you’re approaching game time.) Once you’re in labor, speak with your provider to get a sense of when to head to the hospital. “They’ll ask you questions about the character of your labor and assess how well you’re managing with each contraction,” Quinn says.

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A little prep work can also go a long way in easing your fears. This includes assessing how far the hospital is, checking what the weather may be like each day as you appreciate your due date, confirming your mode of transportation and solidifying childcare plans for older kids. “I recommend women and families plan for the unexpected—and that planning begins weeks in advance,” says Quinn.

Not Being Able to Handle the Pain

“I’m not a fan of pain, and the idea of actually giving birth terrified me. When I was pregnant with my first child I remember whimpering to my husband ‘I can’t go through with this!’ But, of course, there was no turning back,” recalls Melisa, a mom and founder of ProjectNursery.com

It’s no secret that childbirth can be quite uncomfortable. Imagining all that pain in advance can feel pretty scary. But reminding yourself that your body was made to do this can help. Once labor is in full-swing, your endorphins will kick into high gear and, for the most part, your body will take over and do what it has to do. Of course, if the pain gets to be too much and labor goes on longer than expected, you can opt for an epidural or other pain management tools available to you, advises Quinn. Some hospitals and birthing centers also have water tubs for laboring and giving birth, which can help ease pain intensity. No matter what birthing method you choose, just make sure you explore all of your options first. “Some women have a high pain tolerance and can work through pain, while others can become completely immobilized by pain and overcome with anxiety or tension because of it,” Quinn says. While both of these responses are perfectly normal, it’s important to understand and prepare for how labor pain may affect you.

Again, preparing for this during pregnancy can help ease some of these endurance fears. Quinn recommends regular exercise, childbirth classes and hiring a doula if the option is available to you.

Having a C-Section

“I was terrified at the thought of a C-section and was determined that I wouldn’t have one. I didn’t even pay attention to the C-section videos in birthing class. I was so certain I had taken all of the precautions to avoid any medical reasons for a C-section. I soon found out there are circumstances that you can’t avoid or take precautions for,” says Kim, a mom and founder of the blog MomTriedIt.net

The reality is: Whether or not it’s in your birth plan, you should brace yourself for the fact that a C-section is always a possibility. “Providers, and hospitals live under the credo of ‘expect the unexpected,’” Quinn says. “Although the majority of births in the US are uncomplicated, there are times when emergencies arise and the only safe solution to complete a delivery is by emergency cesarean section.” Yes, C-sections can have some potential downsides, like a longer recovery time, abdominal pain, soreness and a higher hospital bill, but the ultimate goal is keeping Mom and baby safe and healthy. Plus, know that the people performing these C-sections are highly trained to do so. Rather than avoiding the possibility, have conversations with your provider early about how they handle emergencies during childbirth.

And if you still feel down on yourself about the possibility of needing a C-section, remember that you’re far from alone. According to March of Dimes, up to a third of births in the US are performed via C-section. “Society has placed an unfair emphasis on women that completing the rigor of childbirth vaginally is the only acceptable way to deliver a baby,” Quinn says.

Dying

The sad and terrifying reality is that fatalities during childbirth do still happen. “There are specific areas of the US—and specific populations of women—where maternal mortality is unacceptably high,” Quinn notes. That said, these situations are still pretty rare thanks to modern medicine and advanced prenatal care. In fact, according to a 2024 study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology maternal mortality rates in America may be lower than previously thought (around 10 deaths—rather than 33—per 100,000 births).

The best way to help conquer this fear is to attend all your prenatal appointments, maintain a balanced lifestyle and discuss any underlying health issues or risk factors with your provider, advises Anate A. Brauer, MD, an ob-gyn and reproductive endocrinologist at RMA of NY. But also know that the fear of the unknown may not be fully conquered until you’re on the other side. “It’s okay to be afraid, but modern healthcare is designed to avoid catastrophic events like maternal death. [We’re] well-equipped to manage any emergency,” Quinn says.

Pooping During Childbirth

Pooping while you have about five different people looking between your legs definitely sounds mortifying, but the reality is it does happen during childbirth. Up to 33 percent of The Bump users claim they did poop mid-push—but they also didn’t care. There’s going to be so much going on down there, a little poop will be the least of your worries. Between the pain, the pressure, the cheering squad of healthcare professionals and the fact that you’re passing a baby through your body, delivering a little more than just your new little bundle won’t really be at the forefront of your mind—or your providers’. “It’s a common occurrence and medical professionals are accustomed to it,” Brauer says. “Try not to focus on it during labor; your healthcare team is there to support you and will handle it discreetly.”

Plus, an unexpected bonus: Pooping during childbirth may help with baby’s delivery. Constipation is common during pregnancy, but “hard stool in the colon can actually impede the descent of baby through the birth canal,” Quinn notes. If you are constipated and in labor, your provider may actually recommend an enema to help you poop. “[Pooping] is actually a good thing and gives the OB team a clue that delivery might be close,” he adds.

Getting an Epidural (or Not Getting One!)

Epidural fears are aplenty—and they can range from the size of the needle and having a bad reaction to not having an unmedicated birth. "I was so afraid of having an epidural. I wasn’t afraid of the meds but the actual needle going into my back. I wanted to avoid it at all costs, but after 20 hours of back labor, I decided to go ahead and do it. Luckily I had the best doctor, he was very comforting and the epidural worked great,” says The Bump forum community member, storybooklove.

The good news: Epidurals are administered by highly trained anesthesiologists and certified nurse anesthetists. While there have been some reports of women having bad reactions to their epidurals, it’s not commonplace. “Epidurals are widely used and safe,” Quinn says. “The instances of untoward side effects or complications are extremely rare, and emergencies—if they arise—are handled immediately.”

If you’re nervous about the size of the needle, rest assured that you probably won’t see it since it goes in your back. And while you may feel a small pinch, it’ll probably pale in comparison to any labor pains you may be having. If you’re concerned, make sure your provider knows about your fears in advance so they can make you as comfortable and calm as possible.

As for the possibility of not having an unmedicated birth, it’s important to recognize that labor pains will probably be unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Plus, because labor can get more painful as it progresses, there’s really no way to know how it may affect you and your pain tolerance. If you do end up getting the epidural, know it says nothing about your abilities and strength. “A woman should not feel in any way belittled, minimized or weak because she opts for an epidural,” Quinn says. “There are no untoward outcomes on baby, and it’s a way to empower women by re-energizing them to complete the birth process.”

Of course, on the flip side, some women fear that they won’t have time to get an epidural and will have to endure childbirth without pain medication. In other words, this concern runs the gamut!

Vaginal Tearing and Episiotomy

“I’m scared of tearing and getting an episiotomy. I am horrified to think of my private parts being all mangled,” shares The Bump reader and community forum member, carole&clark.

Rest assured that while some tearing may be inevitable if you deliver vaginally, it’s not anything irreparable. “Providers employ specific maneuvers during the actual delivery process to help minimize tension on delicate vaginal tissues, but even the most skilled practitioner often cannot avoid some small lacerations,” Quinn says. These small tears may occur within the vagina, labia or perineum, and most won’t need stitches to heal. For any that do, they should heal within a few days or weeks after delivery. Plus, while not guaranteed fixes, there are ways to help minimize vaginal tears. “Perineal massage during pregnancy and practicing relaxation techniques during labor can help reduce the risk of severe tearing,” Brauer says.

If you’re nervous about an episiotomy, know they aren’t all that common anymore. A 2017 analysis of birth data found that rate to be around 7 percent. However, if you’re really trying to avoid it, it’s important to voice your concerns early with your provider.

Unfollowed Birth Plans

“I didn’t have a written birth plan and was delivering at a large hospital, so my biggest fear was that a doctor or nurse would give me an intervention I didn’t want without asking,” shares elizabee12, mom and The Bump community member.

Whether or not your birth plan is written down, it’s important to be prepared in the event it goes out the window. Ultimately, birth plans are just that—plans. Since there’s so much that could happen on delivery day, it’s important to be flexible and prep yourself from the get-go that it probably won’t all go how you want it to. “Hospitals are very regimented in their protocols and policies, especially those that surround labor and delivery. Although most OB providers try to honor requests, sometimes it’s not always feasible or safe, especially if an emergency arises,” Quinn notes. Focus on the end goal instead: A safe childbirth for you and baby. “Trust your healthcare team to make decisions in your best interest,” Brauer says.

This is why it’s important to have discussions with your provider about birth expectations and protocols early on, to make sure you’re aligned, feel comfortable and have a level of trust. “A woman or couple needs to develop a relationship with their provider and have a strong sense of trust in their abilities, especially to make life-saving decisions or act quickly,” Quinn reiterates.

Having a Long Labor

“I was so afraid of being in labor forever,” says krs15, a mom and The Bump community member. "I would hear these horror stories of women laboring for hours upon hours…and some for almost a day! I just didn’t know how I could have handled that,” she adds.

Of course, while it might feel like forever, we can safely assure you that labor won’t actually take forever. And remember: The pain likely won’t be constant the entire time. Barring any extreme circumstances, your pain will become a little less intense in between contractions, allowing you to get relief in intervals. Plus, pain management techniques (like Lamaze and the Bradley method) can really help, Brauer says, so, if you’re interested in trying them, make sure you study up on each one several months before the big day.

Unfortunately, labor is unique to each person—and sometimes it can take a while. Like so many other aspects of parenthood, accept baby will arrive in their own time when they’re ready.

Delivery Complications

Childbirth involves several moving pieces, and tons of variables could come into play and cause something to go wrong or even just off-course—like baby moving into a breech position or not having strong enough contractions to move baby along in the canal. Many of these factors may just result in a necessary C-section, but most hospitals and birth centers are prepared to handle emergencies in ways that support good outcomes, Quinn says. Plus, most of these variables will probably be detected during pregnancy, so there’ll likely be less room for surprise than you might fear. For example, your doctor will monitor baby’s positioning in the weeks leading up to labor, so any sudden shifts in movement (like a head-down baby suddenly being breech) are far less likely. “Communicate openly with your provider about any concerns you have, and trust in their expertise to provide the necessary care,” Brauer adds.

Going Home With the Wrong Newborn

Many new parents worry about the possibility of going home with the wrong newborn, but Quinn says it’s highly unlikely for several reasons—the primary being that baby and Mom have an inherent bond and recognition of one another. Plus, hospital staff are also careful to put identifying bands on baby and both sets of parents—and check them thoroughly anytime baby leaves or is returned to a parent. “Some institutions have introduced barcode or QR code scanning at each point of hand off as another level of additional security,” Quinn says. “The instances of babies being given to the wrong mother, or worse, going home with the wrong family, are rare to almost non-existent within modern healthcare.”

Dropping Baby

Newborns are tiny and often wet and slippery, so it’s not surprising that some new moms worry about baby accidentally being dropped or mishandled. "I was so scared I’d accidentally hurt him in some way, especially because I wasn’t very mobile for the first few days of C-section recovery. I was so clumsy and even walking to the bathroom was hard for a while, not to mention carrying a newborn!,” says Natalie G., mom of one.

Quinn notes that after delivery, they’ll set up tons of blankets and drapes to help dry baby and keep them from slipping. Of course, that might not quell your concern about handling baby at home during baths and diaper changes in those few first weeks at home. But time will help alleviate those fears. You’ll be a pro in no time.

Not Being Good Parents

While not directly related to childbirth, being worried about not getting it right all the time is a fear the vast majority of first-time expectant parents have. Be gentle with yourself—you’re learning right alongside baby. Instead of worrying about trying to do the best thing, stick with options that feel right to you in the moment and know it’ll get easier with time.

“Childbirth is a transformative experience, and it’s okay to feel a range of emotions, including fear and anxiety,” Brauer says. “Surround yourself with support, stay informed and trust in your ability to navigate this journey with resilience and strength.”

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

Sources

Anate A. Brauer, MD, FACOG, is an ob-gyn and reproductive endocrinologist at RMA of NY. She earned her medical degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine and completed her residency at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Paul Quinn, PhD, CNM, FACNM, is a certified nurse midwife and women’s health nurse practitioner with over 30 years of experience. He’s authored several books on the topic of prenatal care and health and currently serves as a professor at Dominican University in New York. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Pace University; his master’s degree from College of Mount St. Vincent; and his doctorate from the City University of New York. He also holds an advanced certificate in midwifery from SUNY Downstate.

Mayo Clinic, Labor and delivery, postpartum care, January 2022

March of Dimes, Delivery Method, January 2022

American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Maternal mortality in the United States: are the high and rising rates due to changes in obstetrical factors, maternal medical conditions, or maternal mortality surveillance?, March 2024

Obstetrics and Gynecology, An Initiative to Reduce the Episiotomy Rate: Association of Feedback and the Hawthorne Effect With Leapfrog Goals, July 2017

Learn how we ensure the accuracy of our content through our editorial and medical review process.

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