Giving birth is a definitive moment in your life – it’s the moment you meet your baby – someone who will change you and your world, forever. It’s inevitable that women can often invest a lot of expectations, hopes and dreams onto their future experience of childbirth, so when things don’t go to plan or worse, go seriously wrong, women can be left feeling traumatised from a difficult or complicated birth experience.
This is something I see quite often, but traumatic births are rarely talked about in a serious or helpful way. Often in the media they’re reduced to horror stories or urban legends rather than being given enough focus as valid, complex birth experiences that can and do happen, all the time.
As a midwife I’ve been present at many births which have had a medical complication or births that have transformed to an emergency situation in a matter of moments. The very nature of childbirth is high risk, which is one of the reasons quality maternal care is so important. Many of us are lucky to have access to medical and technological advances that literally save lives, but often a harrowing birth can leave deep scars on the mother and her partner, and it’s important to find a way to move on from a traumatic birth and process what happened.
What is a traumatic birth?
A traumatic birth can be defined as a birth that had unexpected complications, resulting in medical intervention or an emergency style situation. Or a traumatic birth could be one that turned out to be very different from your expectations.
Traumatic births can relate to a number of scenarios and there is no one size fits all description. If you feel traumatised by your birth, then quite simply, you had a traumatic birth. Whether your baby was in difficulty, you needed an emergency C-Section, you had a PPH or had excessive tearing, a prolonged labour or an unexpectedly fast labour in a place where you felt unprepared, all kinds of factors can contribute to feeling traumatised by the birth experience you had.
These scenarios include situations where a mother can feel traumatised afterwards:
- assisted delivery with ventouse or forceps
- excessive tearing or pain after the birth
- concern for you or your baby’s life during labour
- an emergency C-Section
- you felt powerless and out of control during your birth
- you had a delivery team that made you feel uncomfortable
- your baby was born with a disability or medical condition
- your baby had to spend time in special care
- you had to receive a major blood transfusion
- you had to have a hysterectomy as part of treating a severe PPH
How do I know if I am traumatised from my birth experience?
Trauma, in the dictionary sense, relates to a bodily wound or shock produced by a sudden injury or accident, and also as an experience that produces psychological injury or pain.
In real terms though, if your birth experience was shocking and you feel deep sadness, distress, fear or anxiety as a result of your birth, then it can be classified as trauma. I’ve worked with many women who have had a combination of these feelings following a difficult birth and it’s so important to allow these feelings a place, and to process them at your own speed.
As you try to come to terms with your birth you may experience the following symptoms:
- flashbacks of the labour and birth
- anxiety and fear at the thought of giving birth in the future
- feeling like a failure or that you let yourself down
- low mood and poor self-image
- angry about the experience you had
- feeling distressed or emotional when people talk about childbirth
- difficulty bonding with your baby
- feeling lonely and unable to discuss your experience
- lack of interest in sex and intimacy of any kind
- postnatal depression
If these symptoms persist it’s important to see a doctor or health professional to discuss more formal ways to help you to come to terms with a traumatic birth. There are lots of supportive networks in place to help you, from charities to counselling and the sooner you ask for help, the sooner you can move forward.
How to overcome the trauma of a difficult birth
Once you have given birth, the immediate focus is on the baby and it’s very common that following a traumatic birth the mother and her partner have to put their feelings on hold, as they deal with the priority of looking after their newborn.
This can be described as ‘disconnecting’ from the birth experience, and I would say it is almost a survival mechanism as you focus on what needs doing, rather than reflecting on what can’t be changed. In many ways it is a similar process to grief.
Focusing on the present can be a helpful way to deal with the instant, raw psychological pain of a traumatic birth, but it’s absolutely essential that when the time is right, you find a way to re-examine your birth and the feelings that it brings about. Those thoughts and feelings won’t go away by ignoring them so take time to mourn the loss of the birth that you wanted and come to terms with the traumatic experience that you had in its place.
It can feel very isolating to be dealing with the fall out from a traumatic birth and as such I recommend that you find a professional to talk to about your experience.
Often a professional midwife or even your health care visitor can be a good choice of person to discuss what happened during your labour. They can help you to connect to the emotions you’re experiencing and find a way to work through them so that you can eventually put a traumatic experience behind you.
I’d recommend that six to eight weeks after your birth that you arrange a debrief with your midwife and review your labour notes in full. I offer this service to my clients no matter what experience they had of childbirth and it is a very valuable way to digest what happened. You should feel free to walk through every detail of your labour and birth and ask any questions about why certain decisions were made, so you can feel better informed about what happened to you and your baby.
When you’re in middle of a traumatic birth, with medical staff coming in and out of the room, it’s easy to feel out of control and unsure of what is happening, and it is this sense of fear and not understanding, during the birth that can contribute to feelings of powerlessness or resentment afterwards.
Learning as much as you can after the event can help give you the tools to examine what happened from a more factual stand point, and help you to take a step forward in dealing with the trauma.
Many women find it useful to look through the notes of their labour, so be sure to request that these are present when you arrange a debrief with your midwife or doctor.
How to prepare for the possibility of a traumatic birth
It’s difficult to truly prepare for the possibility of a traumatic birth. There’s no way of knowing what birth experience you are going to have but because of this very reason, I feel it is so important to at least consider a less than favourable birth scenario. I believe having more information and knowledge can give you a much greater sense of understanding, calm and even power when things are not going according to your ideal birth plan scenario.
There are some practical things you can do to feel more prepared and better able to deal with whatever kind of birth experience you have.
- Firstly, surround yourself with people you can trust – be it family, friends or medical professionals like midwives or doctors that you have confidence in.
- Join an antenatal class that is specifically designed to help you to prepare for the birth experience that you get – rather than promising you the birth experience that you want. You should also find one that helps you to feel prepared for those early days with baby, because that will be your absolute focus as soon as labour is behind you.
- Resist the temptation to make a strict birth plan as if things do not go according to plan, it can feel like you’re failing. Instead go into the experience well informed and with an open mind, knowing your preferences but understanding that no one is able to order their birth experience – if only it were that simple!
Understanding what happened
A lot of the healing process of overcoming a traumatic birth is linked with understanding what happened during your experience.
I’ve sometimes found that women who have had a particularly harrowing birth have felt apprehensive about future pregnancies and going through childbirth again.
Each individual birth story and circumstance is different and there is no hard and fast way to predict how subsequent labours may differ. The most useful thing you can do is to find out as much as you can about your birth experience, when you feel strong and ready enough to review it with a medical expert. Write down questions to ask beforehand and make sure you feel satisfied with the answers given to you.
It is possible to move on from a traumatic birth and to go on to have future pregnancies and labours with more positive experiences, but getting over the trauma won’t happen overnight.
I can’t overestimate how important it is to validate your feelings and to give yourself time to get over the experience you had.
Allow yourself to feel robbed of a positive birth. Allow yourself to feel angry that you felt unprepared for what happened to you. Allow yourself to digest the severity of a complicated birth situation, that might have felt surreal at the time it occurred. Allow yourself to feel cheated of your expectations. And allow yourself to feel lucky you have come this far afterwards.
I always say to any mums who’ve had a difficult birth that they should never forget to acknowledge how much they’ve been through and to treat themselves as they would a friend. If a friend had just been through a traumatic experience, you would treat them with kindness and compassion and understanding. Remember that beating yourself up about things that were out of your control is not conducive to the healing process. Be kind to yourself and take each day as it comes. The traumatic memories will fade as you develop your understanding about what happened.
I like to believe that moving on isn’t a case of forgetting about the past, but rather it’s a chance to acknowledge your experience and learn from it. Absorb the disappointment, suffering or pain and take these emotions as sources of future resilience, strength and growth. Of course, this is easier said than done, but having patience and good support around you will make it that much more possible.
If you would like to book a personal consultation with Sofie Jacobs to discuss an existing pregnancy or previous birth please get in touch.
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