Is someone you love or care for suffering because of a traumatic birth or perinatal PTSD?

You may feel at a loss and confused as to how you can help. You may worry that things will never be the same again. You may also be struggling with overwhelming emotions such as anger that this is happening to your family.

However, there are ways you can support your loved one both emotionally and physically to make the journey to recovery easier.

One of the main ways as partners, family and friends you can offer support is to acknowledge what has happened to your loved one and their feelings surrounding it. This can be a massive comfort and support as often they will feel alone, isolated and like no one understands. Acknowledging their pain is so important to healing.

What else can you do?

  • Let them know you are there for them to talk to when they are ready and able to.
  • Acknowledge their feelings and do not belittle or dismiss them.
  • Help them to see you want to try to understand how they are feeling and that you recognise how traumatised they may feel.  
  • Reassure them that you are there for them and that you will help in any way you can. You may be the only person that they trust!
  • Encourage, commend, and show compassion and empathy. Emotional support is invaluable, even if it’s just a listening ear or a hug.
  • Realise that there may be things or activities that they may not yet feel ready to do, be patient and show understanding.
  • Practical help will be appreciated, housework, preparing meals and shopping all need to be done, but these daily tasks can feel almost impossible for your loved one while they are suffering. Just a small offer of help can be a big source of support.
  • Getting to appointments for counselling or other forms of therapy can be very stressful too and just having someone there for moral support can help. Or it may be that just a call to ask how an appointment went or to say you were thinking about them can mean so much.
  • One thing that can help with recovery from PTSD and birth trauma is sleep, so helping out with baby so your loved one can get more rest and sleep can make a real difference.
  • Think about what you say! Do not tell them they have a healthy baby and that is what matters, or that they should try to get over it, or that time will make them forget. This can make them feel like they should ‘be okay’ and not affected by the trauma.

PTSD can often cause your loved one to have flashbacks to the trauma. During a flashback, people often feel a sense of disassociation from people and the world around them, what can you do to help?

  • Tell them they’re having a flashback and that even though it feels real, it’s not actually happening and that they are safe.
  • If they are in a public or busy place try to take them somewhere nearby that is calmer and quieter.
  • Remind them of where they are, and help to ground them, for example, ask them to look around the room and describe out loud what they see.
  • Encourage them to take deep, slow breaths which will help them feel calmer and prevent hyperventilation.
  • Avoid sudden movements or anything that might startle them, especially if they are struggling to know where they are.
  • Ask before you touch them. Touching or putting your arms around the person might make them feel trapped, which can lead to greater panic or flashbacks.
  • If it is a smell or an item causing the flashback, slowly explain this to them and with permission remove it.

At a time when your loved one isn’t having a flashback, it can be good to sit down and discuss what is helpful to them. It can also be helpful to make a list of triggers, this can help reduce the exposure until the person is ready.

You can do much to help your loved one feel safe.

  • Let them know you’re not going anywhere, that you want to help them and are there to care and support them.
  • Ask them what they need to help them feel safe.
  • Routines, structure and schedules can help your loved ones feel more secure.
  • Be aware of things that can make a person with PTSD feel unsafe, such as new places, crowds, confusion, confrontation, being constrained or being in closed spaces.
  • Try to reduce any stress at home or in the workplace.
  • Talk about the future and make plans together. This can help counteract the common feeling among people with PTSD that their future is bleak and limited.
  • Keep your promises. PTSD can make your loved one lose trust in people. Be consistent and follow through on the things you say you’re going to do.
  • Tell them you believe they are capable of recovery. Emphasize their strengths. Help them and remind them of their positive qualities, successes and how far they have come. Encourage them to keep going and that together you can beat this.

Watch your words! 

“What are you worried about”, “just be positive”, “but you have a healthy baby”, “Don’t worry about things it will be ok”, or “Try to relax” are some of the things we may be tempted to say to someone with PTSD. But these comments can do more damage than good. If all it took was to ‘try and relax’ then think how easy it would be to recover!

A person with PTSD may need to talk about the traumatic event over and over again. This is part of the healing process, so avoid telling your loved one to stop dwelling on the past and move on. Some of the things your loved one tells you may be very hard to listen to, especially if you were present or are struggling too. But it’s important to respect their feelings and reactions, if you are disapproving, horrified, or judgmental, or dismiss or downplay their feelings they are unlikely to open up to you again. Encouragement, acknowledgement, commendation and reassurance will offer much-needed support in even the darkest of times.

Encourage your loved one to get help, whether it be the GP, Health Visitor, Midwife or an organisation such as the Birth Trauma Association.  This will not be easy as they may have a fear or distrust of telling anyone how they really feel, especially a healthcare professional. Reassure them of your support, maybe offering to attend any appointments with them if they wish. Asking for help can be hard, and so will the time undergoing any therapies, being there for them and providing emotional support is so important.

If you are struggling to access any help, or your loved one does not feel able to ask for help it may be that you will need to act on their behalf in either seeking the help for them or fighting for the support needed.

Sometimes your loved one says they do not want help. Why?

  • They may be afraid of losing control
  • They may feel weak or ashamed of their feelings.
  • They do not want to burden others.
  • They believe that others won’t understand.
  • They want to avoid thinking about what happened.
  • They fear others will judge or pity them.

Helping someone suffering from PTSD can be difficult and frustrating.  Reading up on PTSD can help you understand it and how it can affect someone who is suffering, this will then help you find ways you can help. Also, it will help you to know the signs of when your loved one is struggling or why they may be feeling a certain way.

Of course, some partners too can feel traumatised and suffer from PTSD after seeing the birth of their baby. It is important they too seek help and support.

We must remember that a person with PTSD is suffering because of what has happened to them. It is not something they can just snap out of or try to be positive about. Your loved one is trying all they can to cope and recover but some days will be harder than others and they will need your support. Help your loved one to value the good days and to not give up hope on the bad ones. Talk together about your feelings and look to the future with hope.

It is possible to help your loved one, and for you to find and navigate the road to recovery together.