By Kate Munden >
Giving birth is a transformative experience for all mothers. Though the world may see pictures of a beaming new parent holding her beautiful new baby, there is often hidden birth trauma beneath the surface. A picture doesn’t show the sometimes shocking, unexpected, painful, and traumatizing events that took place to bring this new baby into the world. It doesn’t show her shattered dreams of a “happy birth,” resulting in heartache and disappointment. Birth trauma is a heavy burden to carry and can manifest symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, there is hope for trauma recovery, healing, and the ability to develop healthy coping skills for future pregnancies and births. Birth trauma does not need to be your story.
Disclaimer: This is intended for educational purposes only, not medical advice. Please seek medical advice from your healthcare provider.
What is a Traumatic Birth?
A traumatic birth is a childbirth experience that causes someone to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is also referred to as post-natal PTSD. Those who have experienced a traumatic birth can be clinically diagnosed with PTSD while others will experience the symptoms of PTSD without ever being clinically diagnosed. The National Institute of Mental Health defines PTSD as “a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.” With childbirth, there are no criteria for difficult birth circumstances that will result in PTSD. Two people could experience the same exact birth but yet one develops postnatal PSTD while the other doesn’t. Cheryl Tatano Beck, DNSc, CNM, FAAN, a distinguished professor at the University of Connecticut’s School of Nursing and one of the leading experts on birth trauma states that “trauma is in the eye of the beholder.”
If you have experienced birth trauma, know that you are not alone. About 45% of new mothers report that they have experienced a traumatic birth. There are many different reasons a mother could describe her birth as “traumatic” but the top three most frequently reported birth traumas were emergency cesarean, lack of respect and compassion, and the newborn needing to go to the Newborn Intensive Care Unit. (Source)
Psychological Symptoms of a Traumatic Birth
The following is a non-exhaustive list of the signs and symptoms of post-natal PTSD as stated by Mind. Each person who has experienced a traumatic birth will have different signs and symptoms.
● Reliving the event through flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or nightmares
● Intense distress at reminders of the trauma
● Alertness or feeling on edge causing irritability, feelings of anger, difficulty concentrating, or difficulty sleeping
● Avoiding feelings or memories which may include feeling emotionally or physically numb, avoiding situations that remind you of the trauma, or being unable to remember details of what happened
● Overwhelming feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, or shame
● Feeling unsafe or like you can’t trust anyone
Physical Symptoms of a Traumatic Birth
Due to the nature of childbirth, a person may have physical injuries such as perineal tears, pelvic floor muscle damage, pelvic organ prolapse (POP), pelvic fractures (public bone, coccyx, sacrum), or Cesarean wounds. Healing from birth trauma often includes healing birth injuries.
Trauma stored in the body can manifest in physical symptoms such as headaches, jumpiness, chronic pain, and dissociation. If left untreated, trauma can exacerbate physical symptoms and potentially worsen existing medical conditions.
What Does Birth Trauma Mean for Future Pregnancies?
Experiencing birth trauma can impact someone’s desire for having more children. If the birth trauma occurred from a mother’s first time giving birth, the mother may have a difficult time imagining a positive birth experience. In some cases, a mother doesn’t realize how deeply she was affected by her traumatic birth until she becomes pregnant again and is triggered by the impending birth of another child.
If you’ve experienced a traumatic birth, consider investing in a birth and postpartum doula. They are trained to provide continuous support during pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period. They will advocate for your needs, reinforce your birth plan, help with pain management, listen as you process your birth story, and support you through the highs and lows. Doulas can be especially beneficial to mothers who do have a strong support system in place.
How to Move Forward After a Traumatic Birth
You can heal and recover from a traumatic birth but it takes work. The emotional symptoms will not disappear on their own and if left untreated, the symptoms can resurface at any time. It’s important to do the hard work to process your birth trauma so you can be the best version of yourself moving forward.
If you would like to…
● End flashbacks and nightmares
● Stop the persistent intrusive thoughts
● Release any guilt and shame
● Unwind the physical trauma stored in the body
● Be comfortable talking about what happened
● Feel in control again
Then begin your journey of trauma recovery. Teaching practical self-help tools to continue building your resilience and prepare for another pregnancy is possible.