Birth can be a wondrous time for families.
It is the bringing of a new life into the arms of its parents. A time to rejoice, build memories and look forward to the new road of parenthood.
However, this isn’t always the case, for some families birth is instead a time of anxiety, stress and anguish. Sadly for some, so difficult is the birth of their baby that they feel traumatised.
Each woman’s* experience of birth is unique to her. How she feels about her birth experience is important. What one woman may find traumatic, another may not.
There can be many reasons a woman feels her birth was traumatic.
- a frightening event that made her feel overwhelmed and struggled to manage.
- an emergency situation where the woman’s life and/or that of her baby’s was at risk.
- a labour that was very lengthy and/or very painful.
- a birth with high levels of medical interventions, such as induction, a caesarean section, episiotomy, or any other medical issue.
- a baby born early that requires care in a neonatal unit.
- a birth that results in damage or injury to the woman and/or her baby.
- the loss of a baby at birth.
For other women trauma can result from the way she is cared for during her pregnancy, the birth of her baby, or postnatally.
- A woman may feel a loss of control, dignity and privacy.
- There may have been a lack of information or a woman may feel she wasn’t listened to and her choices not respected or overlooked.
- She may feel she had medical procedures done without her consent or without proper explanation.
- She may have left with no choices, or coerced into a procedure or situation she did not want.
- Sometimes it is the language used which was unkind, cruel or damaging to her.
- Some women find their birth experience triggers or can add to, a previous trauma such as rape or childhood abuse.
- Other women find that a difficult pregnancy contributed to her feeling traumatised.
Whatever the reasons, trauma from birth is real and this must be understood and acknowledged.
The Aftermath of Birth Trauma
Women who feel traumatised from their birth often feel isolated and alone with feelings they struggle to share.
Family and friends may not understand why a woman feels traumatised. This can leave a woman feeling guilty or weak for not ‘coping’ with her birth. She may feel she should ‘get over’ her birth experience and move on. Often they will be told ‘at least you are ok and you have a healthy baby’.
The aftermath may include;
- Damaged relationships with partners, family members and friends as a woman feels no one understands her feelings.
- Depending on the nature of the trauma a woman may feel unable to have further medical tests such as smear tests.
- Sex may also be affected as a woman may fear further pregnancies or even just the act of physical intimacy itself.
- Many women who suffer birth trauma may struggle to bond with their babies.
- Others may instead become overly anxious about their baby’s health and well-being and constantly worry about every aspect of caring for their newborn.
- A traumatic birth can mean every aspect of life with their new baby is affected.
- For a woman who has lost a baby during birth or whose baby has been injured during birth she may experience overwhelming guilt, she may feel like it is her fault, that she somehow failed her baby or that she should somehow have prevented it.
‘Birth trauma is in the eye of the beholder’ (Cheryl Beck)
Feeling like they have no voice, are misunderstood and weak, many women will seek to hide their true suffering, carrying on with the weight of trauma bearing down on them crushing hope and happiness as they try desperately to cling to normality. Everyday tasks become hard and just coping day to day can feel overwhelming. Their physical health too may suffer, they may struggle to sleep, eat and care for themselves. Flashbacks may take them back to the event reliving moments, even smells and conversations causing great distress and anxiety.
The result may be Perinatal PTSD.
Sadly birth trauma can be overlooked or misunderstood and wrongly diagnosed, often as postnatal depression. Women report they are rarely asked how they feel about their birth and how this has impacted them emotionally. For others, it may be that they disassociate from everything and everyone around them to cope with the experience and its aftermath, including their baby.
It is estimated that, in the UK alone, up to 200,000 women a year find their birth traumatic. Most overcome this with support. However, research suggests that about 3.17% of women go on to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after a traumatic birth. These women will need additional specialist professional mental health support and treatment. This doesn’t include those who do not speak out about their suffering, who are not acknowledged as having had a traumatic birth, or who are misdiagnosed. This also does not include partners or birth workers who also may suffer birth trauma.
It is important that if a woman is struggling emotionally or physically following the birth of her baby she is asked about her birth experience and given time to talk about her feelings as well as offered any support she may need.
Healing from birth Trauma is possible with time, help and the right support.
What can a woman who has experienced birth trauma do to find help and support?
- Speak to someone, partner, family, friends, midwife, health visitor, GP. Don’t suffer in silence.
- Remember you are not alone, there are others too who have been affected by birth trauma.
- Remember you are not to blame.
- Look after yourself physically, make sure you rest and eat a good balanced diet. Sleep is important as is taking time to seek help and support.
- Know your limitations and what you can do both physically and emotionally.
- Speak to your hospital about your experience. Some women ask to see their medical notes and request a debrief to discuss exactly what happened to them and why.
- Seek help and treatments to help you process what has happened and put you on the road to recovery.
- Find local support groups or support groups on social media (such as Birth Trauma Association Facebook page or Unfold Your Wings Facebook Support page.
Birth trauma is real and it is important that those affected get the help and support they need to overcome it.
The birth of their baby can affect a woman and her partner for the rest of their lives, it may not be possible to completely prevent birth trauma but it is possible with the right help and support to recover. Breaking free from birth traumas dark cocoon is possible, enabling you to spread your wings, to find the light again.
* While I refer to women or mothers throughout the website, I acknowledge that not all individuals will identify as such. Also that partners, healthcare professionals and birth workers too may be the ones that are suffering and affected by birth trauma.