Face masks in labour: 'I feared I would vomit'

By Divya Talwar
BBC News

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media captionRosie: "I feared I would vomit"

Wearing a face mask has become part of daily life during the pandemic. But there are some people who are exempt from the rules - and that includes women giving birth.

However, Rosie Brown is among those who were told they did have to wear a mask during labour.

The 39-year-old has a condition called emetophobia, a phobia of vomit. And she says the smell of the mask was making her nauseous, which in turn made her "panic".

"It was making me feel really sick," says Rosie, who gave birth to her third child during the pandemic.

There were complications during her labour, and Rosie was terrified her son wasn't going to make it.

She says the mask "was just put on my face" while she was in advanced labour.

"We have become so conditioned to wearing them, that I didn't question it.

"So in amongst the claustrophobia and the pain, I was panicking that I was going to vomit inside my mask.

"I have this surgical mask on my face, and the feeling of claustrophobia was just massive. I was just so frightened."

'Gasping for air'

Research carried out by the charity Pregnant Then Screwed, shared exclusively with BBC News, suggests Rosie's case wasn't unique.

In its survey, of 936 women who gave birth in December 2020, one in five said they were told to wear a mask.

But guidance from the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), states women shouldn't be asked to wear a facial covering during childbirth - including both natural and Caesarean births - because of the risk of harm.

While the majority of women have not had to wear a mask, Celia Venables, from Pregnant Then Screwed, says there does seem to be some "confusion" among a minority of maternity staff.

"Women have told us that wearing a mask has added an extra layer of stress for them.

"This is avoidable, but it's clear there is some confusion because the guidance is not being followed in every case."

Natalie Titherington, from Oldham, says she wasn't aware of the guidance when her baby girl was born last December.

She says her labour was the most terrifying experience of her life.

"I was gasping for air. I felt completely suffocated.

"I'm never going to be able to forget the feeling of not being able to breathe, and the fear and panic I felt while wearing a mask."

Natalie says she was made to wear a mask while having regular and very painful contractions.

"Someone put the mask on me. I said 'you can't be serious', and she replied 'yes', and then I remember having a contraction.

"My body was already in a state of distress, and I tried to remove the mask at one point, but I was told I had to put it back on."

Natalie ended up having an emergency Caesarean section and was told to continue wearing the mask during the surgery.

She hasn't been able to wear any kind of facial covering since giving birth, because it triggers the memory of "struggling to breathe" which she experienced during her labour.

''That feeling of suffocation and panic is something that still stays with me. It is something that flashes back as the worst fear I have been through."

'A one-off'

Dr Mary Ross Davie, from the RCM, helped write the guidance on face masks during labour.

She believes it's "very rare" that expectant mothers are incorrectly asked to wear a face covering during childbirth.

But she adds: "All health professionals from the beginning of the pandemic were having to respond to such rapid guidance and change all of the time.

"Many on the clinical front line have found it difficult to keep up-to-date with the latest guidance.

"I think sometimes what has happened is that some health professionals may not have understood that when a woman is in labour, they should be exempt from wearing a mask."

The Royal Oldham NHS Hospital, which provided Natalie's care, said the trust "follows guidance from the RCM" and that they would not "expect a women to wear a face mask whilst giving birth".

The hospital where Rosie gave birth also said it follows the guidance, and her experience is likely to be a "one-off".

Both Rosie and Natalie say they just want expectant mothers to do their research, so they are aware of the latest rules.

"I can't imagine going through childbirth again," says Natalie.

"If the guidance was just followed during my labour, I wouldn't have faced the unnecessary stress and confusion I went through."