Nearly one in five pregnant women in the UK were forced to wear a face covering during labour, according to research by a charity, despite official health guidance saying they should not be asked to do so.
Women described feeling unable to breathe, having panic attacks or even being sick during labour because they were made to wear a face covering.
The research was carried out by the charity Pregnant Then Screwed, who surveyed 936 women who gave birth during December. It found that 160 of those who went into labour were made to wear a face covering. This goes against current joint UK guidance, published in July 2020 by the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
The guidance says that women should not be asked to wear a face covering of any kind during natural labour or during caesarean births because of the risk of harm and complications. Rosie, 39, from London, said she felt as if she was dying because she was in so much pain during advanced labour with her third child, born in December. Yet maternity staff instructed to keep on her face mask.
She told BBC News: “I was feeling claustrophobic and the mask was making me feel really nauseous and making me panic as well. I’m pushing my baby out, I have this mask on my face, and the feeling of claustrophobia is just massive.”
She said she couldn’t express herself because while struggling to breathe it was hard to talk and staff couldn’t see her whether or not her lips were moving. “I was frightened that amongst everything else that was happening I was then going to be sick inside the mask,” added Rosie, who has a condition called emetophobia, which is a fear of vomiting. At one point she ripped off the mask but was told to put it back on.
Natalie Titherington, from Oldham, says she was not aware of the guidance on face masks during labour when her baby girl was born last December. She said the birth 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.”
Titherington says she was made to wear a face mask while she was in advanced labour, around 8cm dilated and having regular and very painful contractions.
“Someone put the mask on me and I said: ‘You can’t be serious’, and she replied: ‘Yes’, and then I remember having a contraction,” said Titherington, who has flashbacks of her traumatic birth and has been unable to wear a face covering since because it triggers the memory of struggling to breathe.
She ended up having an emergency caesarean and was told to wear the mask during the entire surgery, which goes against the official guidance.
“Research that we did in December showed that just 53% of women are feeling listened to in labour,” said Joeli Brearley, CEO and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed. “When you overlay that with the fact that 50% of women who are having C-sections are being told to wear a mask, and 10% of those in natural labour, you’re adding a literal communication barrier when birthing restrictions mean that some women are birthing alone.”
She added: “Women that we’ve spoken to have had asthma, they’ve felt dizzy, one woman even threw up in her mask during labour. This is completely avoidable. The guidance needs to be made clear and communicated to all pregnant women that they do not need to wear masks in labour.”
Dr Mary Ross Davie, director of professional midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives said since the start of the pandemic health professionals have had to respond to rapid changes in guidance.
“For many on the clinical frontline they have found it really difficult to keep up to date with what the latest guidance is,” she said. “I think sometimes what has happened is that some health professionals may not have understood when someone is in labour they should be exempt from wearing a mask.”
The Royal Colleges clarified last summer at the request of the charity Birthrights that no one should be asked to wear a mask while in labour, said the charity’s Maria Booker. “Being asked to wear a mask through the exertion of giving birth is completely inhumane and we urge all maternity services to make sure staff are clear on this,” she said.
An NHS spokesperson said: “Guidance to hospitals has been absolutely clear that women who are giving birth are exempt from wearing a facemask, and every hospital in England should be following this.”