Most women look forward to experiencing birth as an empowering and happy event.
Yet for some women, their birth experience is frightening and traumatic.
The effects of birth trauma can vary, depending on the woman and how she feels about and copes with her experience.
Usually women come to terms with their birth experience within a short time.
When recovery from a traumatic experience is ongoing and is having a significant emotional impact, this is known as birth trauma.
What Is Birth Trauma?
While commonly referred to as birth trauma, the correct terminology is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD occurs as a reaction to frightening or traumatic experiences. We often hear about PTSD occurring when people have been through life threatening events, such as military combat or severe personal assault.
Any situation where a person believes they or someone they care about is threatened by death or serious injury can trigger trauma – including childbirth. This can include both real and perceived threats, such as injury to the baby or not being listened to by hospital staff.
Birth trauma can affect those who work in birth settings, such as midwives and doulas. Just as birthing women need to seek help, it’s important that these professionals recognise the possibility of being affected by witnessing a traumatic experience and seek help and support to process and cope with their feelings.
Signs of Birth Trauma
It can be a normal part of life as new parents to be drained, emotional and even have moments feeling that it’s all too hard. These feelings can come and go, but usually resolve over time.
Make an appointment to see your care provider, maternal health nurse or midwife if you are experiencing any of the following signs in the months after birth:
- Intense fear, helplessness or horror felt in response to the birth experience
- Recurrent and intrusive images of birth, nightmares and flashbacks
- Inability to remember certain parts of the birth
- An extreme fear of giving birth again in the future
- Distress, panic or anxiety when exposed to things which are reminders of the event
- Avoidance of reminders of the traumatic experience, such as hospitals
- Anger, irritability and hyper vigilance (jumpy and on guard)
- Bonding difficulty with baby, resulting in guilt and anxiety
- Difficulty sleeping or depression
These symptoms indicate you may have a specific type of post-traumatic stress disorder called postnatal PTSD. Symptoms of postnatal PTSD tend to recur in the weeks and months after the birth experience.
Who Gets PTSD?
The causes of a traumatic birth can vary from woman to woman. A difficult birth that involves physical complications or a threat of injury of death is not the only trigger for trauma. Women who experience a loss of control or hostility from those around them may experience emotional trauma that leads to post natal PTSD.
You may be more likely to have PTSD if you experience the following:
- Prolonged labour or very fast and painful labour
- Traumatic or emergency birth (forceps, c-section)
- Induction of labour
- Inadequate pain relief when needed
- Feelings of loss of control and powerlessness
- High levels of medical intervention
- Lack of privacy and dignity
- Impersonal or hostile treatment from staff, lack of empathy or support
- Fear for your or your baby’s life (perceived or real)
- Your baby was born with a disability and/or spent time in special care
- You have had a past traumatic event (previous birth or domestic violence)
- Lack of information or not being listened to
- Previous experience of stillbirth or baby being stillborn
- Poor postnatal support and care.
PTSD is often misdiagnosed as post natal depression (PND) as some of the symptoms are the same. Some women may not have PTSD but have some of the symptoms of PTSD and need similar support. Partners and birth supporters who have witnessed a traumatic birth experience may also need help and support to deal with their emotions.
How To Recover From PTSD
Unfortunately those suffering from birth trauma may find they are expected to get over how they feel and be grateful medical assistance was available. This lack of understanding and acknowledgement can add to a woman’s sense of isolation and distress.
Women who are affected by post natal PTSD often feel they can’t talk about their experience with other mothers who didn’t experience birth in the same way or have been able to move on from their birth experience. This can lead them to feel they are failures because they haven’t been able to put their experience into perspective.
Discussing your feelings with your doctor, midwife or maternal health nurse is the first step to getting the support and help you need. You may be guided to seek the help from a specialist mental health professional who can guide you to understand your reactions in the context of trauma. Being listened to and realising that you are not alone can help you make sense of what happened and start you on the road to recovery.
You may seek help from a number of professionals or organisations in your area. If there is no specific service in your local area, get in touch with the national trauma body in your country.
Australia & New Zealand