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2008 research findings

arkiv - Sexually abused women more likely to experience birth as terrifying

Published Updated

Women who have experienced sexual abuse as adults are at greater risk of experiencing extreme fear during the birth. This is shown in a2008 study from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) in collaboration with Akershus University Hospital. - We believe that for these women the delivery situation may trigger abuse associations, and thus reactivate feelings, says researcher Malin Eberhard-Gran at the NIPH.

Some women experience intense fear or panic during birth. Obstetricians and midwives have clinically observed that this can be linked with sexual abuse. However, this was the first major study that scientifically underpins this link. 414 women who had given birth completed a questionnaire about their experiences 6 weeks post partum.

Birth may take longer

The researchers found that three per cent of the women reported extreme fear, 13 percent had some fear and 84 percent experienced no fear during the birth. 12 per cent had been sexually abused as an adult. The stronger the fear, the greater was the risk that the woman had been subjected to assault. Among the women with extreme fear during the birth, a third had a history of sexual abuse in adulthood.

The results suggest that women who have been sexually abused in adulthood have a greater risk of experiencing extreme fear during birth. The findings indicate that feelings associated with sexual abuse can be reactivated and affect the birth.

- We already know that women who have been abused often have an aversion to gynaecological examinations, says Eberhard-Gran.

It is known that that severe anxiety during delivery may slow down birth, which may deprive the child of oxygen. It is also common to use more pain-relief in such situations, which can affect the woman’s ability to co-operate.

The researchers also found that depression in pregnancy, a long birth, vaginal delivery with vacuum, forceps, breech birth and twin births were other factors that were associated with extreme fear during birth.

Important to have extra support

Sexual abuse has been previously associated with psychological distress, e.g. depression, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, insomnia and social dysfunction. That sexual abuse can also lead to extreme fear during the birth is a new observation.

Extreme fear during birth could in itself be a traumatic experience for the mother, causing post-traumatic stress symptoms.

- It is therefore very important to provide additional support to pregnant women with a history of sexual abuse or symptoms of anxiety and depression. These women need calm during the birth, and they may also need extra care and follow-up, both during and after the birth says Eberhard-Gran.


The article “Fear during labor: The impact of sexual abuse in adult life” was published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology.