What is birth trauma?
Many women experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after a traumatic birth, but if you don’t fit enough symptoms to be diagnosed with full-blown PTSD, you can still class it as “birth trauma”. PTSD occurs when you experience life-threatening events, you witness life-threatening events, or someone close to you – like your baby – experiences life-threatening events. If the birth of your baby results in either one of you having to fight for your life, there is a high chance you will be traumatised from the birth. Although, you may not even need to have experienced a life-threatening situation to be traumatised by the birth.
What are the symptoms?
Some symptoms you may experience include:
- Feeling intense fear, helplessness, or horror at the birth
- Persistent reliving of the birth (e.g. flashbacks, nightmares, or recurrent and intrusive memories)
- Feeling anxious, distressed, or panicky when reminded of the birth
- Avoiding things that remind you of the birth
- Difficulty sleeping, or concentrating because of the above symptoms
- Hyper-vigilance (being jumpy or ‘on-guard’ all the time), irritability, and anger
These symptoms are a normal response to a traumatic situation. Your mind brings up the memories all the time without you having any control over it – it is just trying process what happened to you. These symptoms and feelings are not a sign of weakness or not being able to cope – just a normal response to trauma.
Some symptoms are similar to that of postnatal depression (PND), though it is not the same thing. PND and birth trauma can be suffered at the same time, and the treatments for both can cross over, but are indeed separate as well.
What causes birth to be traumatic?
There are many different things that can happen during a birth that a mother may find traumatic. These can range from dangerous complications for mother or baby, to wishes or a birth plan not being adhered to. Some of the most common reasons a mother feels traumatised after birth include:
- An extremely long labour
- An extremely short labour
- An extremely painful labour (e.g. poor pain relief management)
- Feeling like you aren’t in control of the birth
- More medical intervention than wanted or expected
- Emergency deliveries (e.g. emergency Caesarean section)
- Clashes with medical staff (e.g. not being treated well, bad attitudes, personality clashes)
- Having your wishes not adhered to or not heard
- Not being told what is happening, or lack of explanation of the procedures
- Feeling like privacy and/or dignity was lost
- Fear for your baby’s safety
- Birthing a stillborn baby
- Birthing a disabled baby (unknown disability prior to birth)
- Your baby needing to stay in intensive care
- Not being looked after well post-birth
- The birth triggering old traumas to be relived (e.g. previous birth trauma, abuse, etc.)
There is no set guideline of things to watch out for to avoid having a traumatic birth – and there is no way for an external person to definitively judge whether or not a birth was traumatic just by looking at what happened. Birth trauma is totally subjective to the mother – and sometimes father/partner – if they feel traumatised; they are traumatised.
Who can experience birth trauma?
Anyone can experience birth trauma. Even the healthiest of people, with the healthiest of pregnancies can have something traumatic happen at the birth. Parents from any walk of life can experience birth trauma – it is not limited to any certain socioeconomic class, race, age – even gender. Fathers and partners witnessing a birth can be traumatised by the events, in the same way that fathers and partners can experience postnatal depression.
How can you recover from birth trauma?
The recovery starts with yourself. As with recovering from many different traumas, you need to acknowledge the fact that you have been traumatised. This can be in a diary or journal that you keep for yourself, expressing it to a loved one or a counsellor if you have trouble talking about to people close to you, or simply saying it to yourself.
Writing letters to the people involved in your birth about how you feel can be therapeutic. You don’t need to send them, just writing down what you’d like to say to them can get the thoughts out of your head so they aren’t stuck swirling around in there.
What can also help to write down is the way you wanted your birth to go. Creating that positive outcome in your mind, or on paper, can be a way to help to ease the pain.
Anything that promotes bodily wellness will help you to heal as well. Things like exercise (if physically possible), massages, aromatherapy, and anything of that nature releases endorphins to make you start feeling better, and promotes the ability to heal, relax, and become calm – things that you may feel were taken away by the birth.
Finding out the specific details of your birth can help you move forward too. Obtaining your medical records and having someone sit down and explain each step of what happened can be beneficial – some of the time, your birth can be such a blur you don’t even know what happened, and finding out can start you in the direction of peace. This can be painful while you are doing it, but the understanding can also bring a sense of closure.
Medication is a route that some sufferers take to ease the symptoms so they can sort through their problems more easily. This route may not suit everyone, but it can help a lot of people. Sometimes, medication can suppress the feelings and thoughts that need to come out to regain control and wellness, so medication should not be the first point of call. If you feel it helps – use it. If you feel it is hindering your recovery – try going without it and using some other options.
Talking to a counsellor who specifies in depression and PTSD can really help, as can joining support groups for parents who have experienced similar things. Knowing that you are not alone is a huge step to recovery. You can find support groups and counsellors in our directory, and our forum is a huge support for many women suffering from birth trauma.
The main thing to remember is that you are in no way lesser because you experienced a traumatic birth – you are just as good a parent as anyone who had a trauma-free birth. There isn’t anything you should’ve done differently, and no blame falls on you. Sometimes, there is no blame to be laid at all – events just didn’t turn out perfectly.
Not all of these symptoms, causes, or recovery options may apply to you, and every sufferers situation is different – so do what you feel helps you, and if something that helped someone else doesn’t feel right for you, don’t do it. The key to recovery is making yourself feel better, healthier, and well again.