More needs to be done to help women who have a morbid dread of childbirth, a condition that affects up to one in 10 women, an expert said today.
Between 6% and 10% of women suffer from tocophobia - an intense anxiety or fear of pregnancy or giving birth, said midwife counsellor Zara Chamberlain.
Some women are so fearful they see maternity wards as torture chambers, she said.
Ms Chamberlain, who works at Ashford and St Peter's Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in Chertsey, Surrey, said that women often suffer alone and have no one to turn to.
She said there should be an expert in the field at each hospital to support women throughout their pregnancies.
There also needs to be more awareness in the health profession about the phobia, she said.
"I am amazed how many midwives have not heard of tocophobia," she said.
"I think it's the same in the obstetric community as well.
"If you don't know about it, you can't help them with it.
"All hospitals ideally should have somebody who they can refer women to, whether that's a psychologist or a counsellor, somebody that can be there and support her.
"Somebody that understands tocophobia and can help women. It's no good saying to a woman that children have been born through the vagina for thousands of years - they know that. These are intelligent women but it is a phobia, it's a fear and they can't avoid it."
Speaking at the Royal College of Midwives annual conference in Brighton, Ms Chamberlain said that some women who suffer from the condition avoid childbirth altogether and use multiple forms of contraception simultaneously - even if they are desperate to have children.
Other women can overcome the avoidance of pregnancy, spurred on by their desire to become a mother, but they often spend the whole nine months of pregnancy living in fear.
This could result in the women deciding to have an abortion or to seek an elective C section, she said.
Women who suffer from the condition can be in denial when they get pregnant.
They can find antenatal classes too difficult to attend, they often conceal their pregnancy with loose clothing and do not prepare for the impending birth.
The condition can develop after women hear harrowing stories of childbirth, or after a girl sees a film depicting childbirth with no support or explanation.
It can also arise as a result of sexual abuse or can develop in women who have had a previous pregnancy that resulted in a traumatic birth, she said.
Ms Chamberlain added: "Where I work in Chertsey, after a woman with tocophobia has been identified she is referred on to me and a consultant obstetrician and then together we work as a team.
"We would book in future sessions to support her - to listen to why she's got this fear, what it means to her.
"We do a robust birth plan, we do a supportive tour of the labour ward - where they often feel as though it's a torture chamber.
"Some women will achieve a vaginal delivery, with support.
"Other women have an elective Caesarian section - which is also a very scary option but the baby has got to be born either vaginally or by a Caesarian section."Suggest a correction