Let’s talk about something that no one wants to talk about — birth trauma. No one plans for it, but it affects nearly a third of mothers. According to PATTCH (Prevention and Treatment of Traumatic Childbirth), 25 to 34% of women experience birth trauma.1 That is unfortunate and, to be honest, terrifying.
What is Birth Trauma?
Now, let’s define birth trauma before we go on any further. Researchers define birth trauma as a perception of actual or threatened injury or death to the mother or baby.2 Although that is the official definition, birth trauma extends further than that. For some women, birth trauma isn’t actually about the birth experience being harrowing or dangerous. It’s more about the loss of control, lack of support, outright disrespect by their medical team, and the overall negative emotional feeling left by the experience.
Risk Factors Contributing to Birth Trauma
- A birth plan that is not going as expected or not being adhered to by the medical team.
- Long or painful labor.
- Severe labor complications.
- Injury due to the birth process either to mom or baby.
- Unexpected interventions like an emergency C-section, assisted forceps, or vacuum delivery.
- Stillbirth or death of the baby shortly after delivery.
- An unsupportive medical team.
- Mother prone to or officially diagnosed with anxiety.
- Previous birth trauma.
How To Prevent a Traumatic Birth
The best way to deal with birth trauma is, of course, prevention. While preventing all types of birth trauma is impossible, minimizing your chance of experiencing birth trauma is possible. Here is what you, mama, can do to prepare yourself for birth and reduce the chances of the birth being traumatic.
- Prepare yourself for birth by taking birth classes and educating yourself on what to expect from a birthing experience.
- Set realistic expectations for birth. Birth is unpredictable and doesn’t always go according to plan.
- Make sure your medical team is supportive. If your OBGYN or midwife doesn’t appear to listen to you or treats you with disrespect during pregnancy, it indicates that they will behave the same way when you’re giving birth. So, make sure you find a provider that is supportive, respectful, and on the same page as you.
- Discuss your birth fears with your provider and plan for different birth scenarios.
- Have a support person with you during birth. If possible, hire a doula. Doulas are a great support resource during birth.
- Establish mental health support. If you’re prone to anxiety, begin working with a therapist during pregnancy. Have a plan for postpartum mental health support as well.
My Traumatic Birth Story
Experiencing birth trauma is no joke. It can lead to postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, and postpartum PTSD. It can interfere with bonding with your baby. It can keep you up at night with recurring flashbacks. Or you may find yourself battling a panic attack while caring for your baby. I, unfortunately, know this all too well.
My first birth was very traumatic. It wouldn’t have been by the official definition of birth trauma because no one was in danger of dying, but it traumatized me. My birth left an emotional trauma that took me over two years to overcome.
Our plans fell apart.
I started my labor in a birthing center. It was supposed to be a beautiful, peaceful experience that would finish up with a glorious water birth. Idyllic, right? But it didn’t go according to plan. I experienced stalled labor that ended in a hospital transfer. They quickly hit me with the news of my baby being breech after my hospital admission. He was never suspected to be breech during my pregnancy and appeared to have turned during labor. And then all I remember is the whirlwind of multiple hospital staff tagging at me and trying to talk to me. My anesthesiologist was incredibly rude and self-centered. I felt powerless and lost, mourning the birth experience I didn’t have, worrying that I would hate my son forever for stealing my birth experience, and I was just completely emotionally spent.
My OB was wonderful, and I continued my relationship with her since my first son’s birth. But at the moment of transfer, she was completely foreign to me. I had never met her before, so I didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t know if I could trust her. Not being able to feel trust during my birth added to the feeling of powerlessness that I was already experiencing.
Numbness replaced happiness.
Needless to say, when all was said and done, I felt numb and not bonded to my son. Instead of an intervention-free vaginal birth, I had a C-section. I was strapped to the operating table instead of holding my son after he was born. Instead of experiencing the flood of post-birth oxytocin, I was drained and numb from the heavy painkillers. Nothing about my birth felt fine.
And as you can imagine, this experience led to everything I discussed before. I suffered from severe PPD and experienced panic attacks. I had a lot of difficulty bonding with my son. And I was terrified and not interested in ever having children again.
But you know what? I survived. I moved past my birth trauma. And I will share how you can move past it, too.
How To Move Past Your Birth Trauma
If you experienced birth trauma, you might be experiencing PPD, PPA, or postpartum PTSD. And all of those can take a toll on you. You may not feel like a good mother. Or you may not even want to be a mother anymore. You may be feeling that you’re not cut out for this gig. But the truth is, you are. You need some help and support to heal from your trauma.
- Talk to your OB or midwife about the birth experience.
- Get a referral to a therapist specializing in trauma or maternal mental health.
- Talk to supportive friends and family about your traumatic experience.
- Journal about your trauma.
- Begin a mindfulness and yoga practice.
- Try to get ample sleep (that may mean your partner gets up with the baby at night, not you).
- Seek out trauma support groups, especially for moms.
- Read self-help trauma books.
- Begin a gratitude practice.
- Bodywork and massage.
There are lots of resources for postpartum support available online. And one of the best and highest-regarded is PSI (Postpartum Support International). They are a large international organization where you can connect with counselors, find support groups (online or on the phone), and find a lot of reading material on postpartum mood disorders. They are absolutely the best place to seek out support.
Just know, mama, you are not alone. What you experienced is valid and deserves support and understanding. And no matter how bleak it may seem, you will be able to move on and heal. You are a warrior!