Is a Healthy Baby All That Matters During Childbirth?

Is a Healthy Baby All That Matters During Childbirth?

Every pregnant woman’s hope is to have a good birth and a healthy baby.

Birth is often treated as though it’s only one day, yet birth is an experience that lives with us for the rest of our lives.

Sadly, for many women, their actual experience of birth is not what they imagined or hoped for.

Sometimes these women are left feeling disappointed or even traumatised by their birth.

This can be incredibly confusing and distressing for a woman who is expecting to feel elated about her baby’s arrival.

Quite often, friends and family dismiss such women’s feelings with well-meaning comments such as, “at least you have a healthy baby”.

While a mother’s most important concern is a healthy baby, how her baby is born DOES matter to her. It’s vital we acknowledge and understand that how she feels about her baby and how she feels about her birth experience are NOT the same thing.

Debby Gould from BirthTalk says, “Women often feel grateful for, and love their baby, at the same time as reeling from the experience of their birth as possibly the worst day of their life”.

During labour, women are at their most vulnerable. It can take just one detail, either physical or emotional, for a woman to feel helpless or powerless. In that state, fear can have a lasting impact. Hospital staff may view a woman’s birth as normal or routine, but can contribute to her feelings of failure or guilt that she didn’t achieve the birth she hoped for, by telling her that her baby’s health is the only thing that matters.

Between 25 and 34% of women say their birth was traumatic. What defines trauma to each woman is different:

  • Feeling powerless during labour
  • Fear of her baby or herself dying
  • Medical complications
  • Unplanned/unnecessary interventions
  • Unsupportive staff
  • A fast birth
  • Caesarean section

When Sarah* had her first baby, she believed in her body’s ability to labour and planned for a natural birth. Instead, she says her birth was traumatising and belittling.

I was coerced into things I had specifically stated I did not want.

When Sarah spoke to staff after the birth of her daughter, she was told to stop thinking about it, because her baby was healthy and that was the most important thing.

‘This made me feel like my pain and hurt/anger did not matter. It was a big trigger for post natal depression for me as I started feeling guilty about it, wondering why I couldn’t ‘just be happy that my baby was healthy.’ It really hurt me a lot.

Sarah’s experience is not isolated. When writing this article, I asked a group of Melbourne-based women if they had experienced being dismissed after expressing dissatisfaction with their birth. I was overwhelmed with stories. Each woman’s words resonates with the pain of being told ‘at least you have a healthy baby’ when trying to process their negative birth experience. Many were hurt that this attitude came from people close to them as well as health professionals whom they sought help and support from.

Society seems extremely uncomfortable with the idea that a mother can be unhappy with her birth if it turned out ‘all right in the end’, which translates to ‘mother and baby are alive’. We expect her to feel relieved and grateful that she and her baby are okay and to push away her inner feelings of disappointment or distress.

Of course having a healthy baby is the most important thing “ but it is not all that matters. Birth is a life changing experience and it does matter how a woman feels about it. Much of the problem comes from the perceived notion that women who care about their birth are selfish and want an ‘experience’ more than a safe birth.

Debby from BirthTalk uses this example:

“Imagine it’s your dream to go to Paris – you go! And you love it! However your plane was hijacked en route – you were terrified and it was the worst twenty hours of your life! Would the fact that you landed safely in Paris cancel the trauma of the flight? Would people say, ‘Well you got to go to Paris that’s the important thing?’ I think not”.

Being told that there is nothing more important than the end result can diminish a woman’s feeling of something wrong. She may try and minimise her own feelings, making things worse for herself. For Fiona*, this was very true.

It made me feel worse and gave me more anxiety when I thought about his birth. I felt like I didn’t have a safe place to talk and debrief. So it made my stress worse.

Fiona says she never really understood the term birth trauma until her third birth experience, which had medical complications.

I really believe people need to stop saying those words, and just listen. Let the mum talk. You don’t know how those words will affect the mum.

Katie* was left with physical and emotional scars after an episiotomy that she was coerced into was not stitched correctly.

The very first person who told me “at least you have a healthy baby” was the birth center midwife who had be assigned to me when I went into labour.

Katie felt guilty for a long time that she could not get over the disappointment of her birth experience. It took her almost a year to seek help for pain and scarring that prevented her from having sex because she felt so unsupported. The first doctor she saw reinforced that she was lucky to have a healthy baby. Another 5 months passed before she felt able to consult another doctor who listened and was able to help.

Yes I am grateful that my baby was healthy but that does not justify the way I was treated.

It can be incredibly difficult to process negative feelings about birth if you are feeling unsupported. Many women feel they cannot complain or are told not to because they have a healthy baby. This minimises their experience and can lead to serious effects on their emotional health and wellbeing, as well as leaving women stranded in a place of isolation because they are told they are not entitled to feel negatively about their baby’s birth.

Is a Healthy Baby All That Matters During Childbirth?

Right?

We need to support women, especially with our words, to understand that these experiences are separate and that how they feel about their birth experience, can be totally different to how they feel about having their baby, says Debby. People in our society, especially those around mothers, including health carers, need to be supported to understand the potential unintentional damage they can do with ‘the healthy baby’ mantra.

Suicide is the leading cause of death of new mothers in many countries around the world — Australia included. Why aren’t we paying attention? Usually one death in any circumstance in the media is enough to make change. Why are we continuing to fail our mothers? People do not understand the power of their words.

If you know someone who didn’t have the birth she hoped for, see BellyBelly’s article for more information on what you might like to say.

If you or someone you know needs support, the following organisations can help:

Some birth professionals offer professional birth debriefing. To help find one in your area, contacting a doula may help — they often know people who support women emotionally after the birth. You may also like to speak to a doula who is experienced in birth reclaiming ceremonies.

*names changed for privacy reasons to conceal the identity of the women who shared their birth stories with BellyBelly.

 

 
Last Updated: October 30, 2015

CONTRIBUTOR

Sam McCulloch enjoys talking so much about birth that she decided to become a birth educator and doula, supporting parents in making informed choices about their birth experience. In her spare time she watches Downton Abbey and has numerous creative projects on the go. She is mother to three beautiful little humans.


8 comments

  1. I have vented to my husband so many times that I hated it when people would ask me about the birth and I would give them a short overview of the traumatic experience and I would get. “Oh that’s too bad. But she’s all worth it, right”. I despise that phrase! I love my baby, but I’m not so sure weighing her worth agains my pains helps the situation at all. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in feeling minimized by others through their words.
    But I have to cut them some slack because unless they’ve gone through a traumatic experience, they would not realize what they are saying. Even then, people slip up.

  2. Finally! A place where I can vent! I was PROMISED an epidural, and after two white knuckle, awful birth experiences prior, I was DEVESTATED this doctor blew me off, saying, “we aren’t going to wake the anesthesiologist up” I was CRUSHED! I pushed at 7cm against the nurse’s orders because I had had it! no one cared what I wanted. My son was born, healthy and quick, and 20 years later I still dream about what could have been….what Should have been!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. I found this article very interesting and true.
    I’m a midwife student, busy with my thesis.
    Can you please let me know if that this findings are scientifically substantiated?
    Cause i find very little scientific articles about mothers well-being.

    Thank you

  4. My first born will be 44 this summer and I still puzzle over his birth. I had asked my M.D. about pain relief during labor and he replied “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you”. I remember very little of the birth due to a drug combo called Twilight Sleep, a combination of Demerol and Scopalamine. My son was delivered after a 4 hour Pitocin-induced labor and I woke up with no memory of the event. I overheard the M.D. telling the nurse I had a 4th degree laceration. It was many years before I could piece together the little I know about that experience.

  5. I am SO very happy to see information such as this being addressed. I had my son 18 years ago and the feelings are still very strong of how wrong it went for me and how so much that I had desired and hoped for seemed to fly out the window. Yes my life was spared which I am very thankful for, but I cannot forget what was taken from me by the doctor and others. I’ve sometimes wondered if I deal with a form of PTSD in relation to these events. It may have taken place almost 20 years ago but the memories are as clear as if IG had happened yesterday.

  6. It has been almost 15 months since I had my son and I love him with all my heart and soul but I still feel depressed about his birth. I had to have an emergency C-section and it was so traumatizing. I asked them if they were going to poke me before cutting me open because I had had my epidural for hours before and I was worried I wouldn’t be numb enough. She didn’t test me and started cutting me open. I could feel everything that happened on the right side but not the left. I got so sick and told them I was going to vomit. I started vomiting and one staff member said they were going to give me something to ease my stomach, well they put me to sleep! I didn’t get to meet my son until almost an hour after he was born, I didn’t get chest to chest. It makes me so devastated. I wanted a vaginal birth so bad. My mother- in law and Husband are the only people I have to talk too and they don’t understand how scary it was being on that table and not knowing what to expect, if my son would be ok or not. They write me off and act like it’s no big deal because “he is healthy.” I am glad he is healthy and that we are still able to breastfeed. My husband and I have talked about having another child and I am so scared. I don’t want another C-section and I am afraid how I will feel if I had to have another. It was very scary and I had no one to support me.

  7. omg I am so happy to learn there are people out there that actually understand this! My first born was a traumatic experience so traumatic that I was screaming at every nurse with my second one which by the way was also a disappointment! I will never have another one at the hospital again! Ever! With my first one I was induced because my doctor wouldn’t take responsibility for my son being passed a week from his due date and it was a nightmare from there! With my second one the nurse had the audasity to tell me to be quiet and try to breath instead! I was 7 cm by then with no pain med and was handling it very well. Well you best believe I shut her up quick! Ugh so mad as I relive both of them daily and regret having them at the hospital

  8. This was a really interesting read. I have a three year old and am currently 34 weeks pregnant. I definitely did not get the birth I wanted with my son as I had to be induced. I didn’t find out until recently that induced labours can be so much more painful than natural and I ended up having the epidural I didn’t want (I requested it in the end) and wasn’t able to have the water birth I did want due to all the monitors. I wasn’t bothered by the time he was born, I just wanted to hold him. I got my healthy baby (who then ended up on SCBU due to having fits at a few hours old – never found out the cause, could it be a traumatic birth that caused it?!) I had to spend my first night as a mum on a ward with mothers and their newborns whilst I had an empty cot next to me. Horrific but couldn’t be avoided due to lack of private rooms (I shoved the cot outside my bay, didn’t need to see that.)
    Overall I think it comes down to the attitude of the staff. You can plan and plan but the birth rarely follows the plan BUT if the staff are supportive when things go off piste the trauma can definitely be reduced. My first midwife didn’t have a clue (asking my husband how to work the stirrups on the bed…), the one that delivered was amazing and explained everything as it happened. I do feel lucky that although it wasn’t the birth I wanted I could see the reason for why it wasn’t.
    I’m determined to get my water birth this time around but will not beat myself up if things don’t go to plan (actually not bothering with a written plan as it remained in the bag the whole time). I know our hospital has a fab reputation for the birth experience, it’s time others followed suite; it seems a lot of trauma could be at least minimised if not avoided completely with better care and communication both during and after the experience.

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