Hundreds of women in the UK were made to wear face masks while giving birth, against guidance, a report by BBC News and Pregnant Then Screwed has found.
Research by charity, Pregnant Then Screwed, shared with BBC News, suggested an average of 1 in 5 pregnant women who took part in the research, were told to wear a face mask in labour during the pandemic.
Out of 936 women surveyed who gave birth during December 2020, 160 women said they were told to wear a face mask during labour.
Guidance from the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (ROCG), published in July 2020, says women shouldn’t be asked to wear any kind of facial covering during childbirth because of the risk of harm and complications.
Rosie, 39, from London, gave birth in December to her third child. She says she was told to wear a face mask by maternity staff while she was in advanced labour. She has a condition called Emetophobia, which is a phobia of vomiting, so while she was wearing the mask, Rosie was having panic attacks. She ripped it off at one point but was told she had to put it back on.
Rosie says: “I felt like I was dying, because I was in so much pain. And while I’m pushing my baby out, I have this mask on my face, and the feeling of claustrophobia is just massive.
“The mask smelt like vomit and it made me really nauseous, and when I feel like I’m going to be sick, I start to panic. So in amongst the claustrophobia and the pain, I was frightened that I was going to be sick inside my mask.
“I was just so frightened and the whole thing was so scary.”
Natalie Titherington, from Oldham, says she wasn't aware of the guidance when her baby girl was born last December and that labour was the most terrifying experience of her life.
"I was gasping for air. I felt completely suffocated," she told the BBC. "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."
That feeling of suffocation and panic is something that still stays with me.
"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."
Celia Venables, Head of Communications for Pregnant Then Screwed said: “From the women we have spoken to, wearing a mask has added complications and distress for them. We had one lady who vomited, we had others who have been unable to breathe. These are things that are avoidable and that’s just simply by following the guidance.”
Dr Mary Ross Davie, Director of Professional Midwifery, Royal College of Midwives said: “I would hope that it would be a rare situation that a woman would be asked to wear a mask in labour. All health professionals from the beginning of the pandemic were having to respond to such rapid guidance and change all of the time.
“For many on the clinical front line they have found it really difficult to keep up to date with what the latest guidance is. 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.”