Birth Trauma

Most women look forward to the birth of their baby and envision it as a joyful and empowering experience, transitioning them into motherhood. Unfortunately, this is not the case for everyone with 25-34% of women reporting their birth as being traumatic. 

So, what is a birth trauma? 

Birth trauma is a response to a real or perceived traumatic event that occurred during labour or birth and is a form of postnatal post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A physical injury to either the mother or baby does not have to occur nor do others (partners or medical professionals) have to agree that the event was also traumatic.

Everyone is different and will cope with experiences in a unique way but common events that can increase the risk of birth trauma are: 

  • Physical injury to self or baby (eg. episiotomy, broken clavicle) 
  • Medical emergencies (eg. Shoulder dystocia, cord prolapse etc)  
  • Experiencing a sense of loss of control or not feeling heard/supported by health professionals or support people 
  • Feeling extremely anxious and afraid
  • Fearing for baby and/or own life.
  • Long or very quick labour/ birth 
  • Poor pain management 
  • High levels of medical intervention ( eg inductions etc) 
  • Emergency deliveries, e.g. emergency caesarean, forceps, vacuum 
  • Lack of information or explanation regarding decisions 
  • Lack of privacy and dignity
  • Stillbirth
  • Baby needing resuscitation or stay in SCN/NICU

What are the signs or symptoms a person struggling with birth trauma might experience? 

The effects of a traumatic birth vary from person to person and it is often mistaken for postnatal depression (PND) as the signs and symptoms are similar. Someone suffering from birth trauma might experience: 

  • flashbacks of the birth
  • nightmares
  • recurrent or intrusive  images or thoughts of the birth 
  • inability to remember certain parts of the birth 
  • feeling panicked and edgy
  • extreme fear of giving birth again 
  • avoiding reminders of the traumatic experience ( such as hospital, doctors etc) 
  • anger 
  • irritability 
  • depression 
  • difficulty bonding with baby 
  • sleeping difficulties 

How to Heal 

Recovery from a traumatic birth experience is unique for each person but will occur with time and support. 

Gain additional support. Speak about how you are feeling to someone you trust like your partner, family, midwife, child and family health nurse, Ob/Gyn or GP. Reliving or discussing the event may be difficult for some, but others feel a great sense of relief once they are able to discuss and debrief. 

Practice self care.Be kind to yourself, even the most ‘perfect’ birth takes time to physically and mentally recover from. Try getting some sleep, taking or asking for practical support, try getting some exercise or fresh air each day, yoga and meditation can also help. 

Debrief.Make an appointment with your care provider to be able to discuss the traumatic experience. You are also able to request your hospital/ birth notes (usually for a fee) thanks to the Health Records and Information Privacy Act 2002 to better understand what may have occurred.  

Join a support group-Sharing your experiences with others may help you to make sense of what happenedand also make you feel like you are not alone. 

Write out your birth story-Own the experience. This can also assist in the debriefing process. It enables the health care provider to see your version of the events.  

See a psychologist or counselor– See a professional if you feel like you need additional help to recover from the birth.  See a GP first for a referral and request a mental health care plan to access reduced cost psychology services. The hospital may also be able to provide some services such as social work as well. 

Educate yourself further on trauma recovery-Borrow self help books out from the library or search the web for some great websites for additional tips on recovery

Make a formal complaint– If you feel your birth trauma was caused by inadequate or inappropriate care by health professionals you can report them or the incident directly to the hospital, to the professional body that the professional is registered with (APHRA for midwives) or the Health Care Complaints Commission.

What about your next birth? 

Most women who have experienced birth trauma will be apprehensive or fearful of another birthing experience. Some tips to help to reduce this anxiety and make the next birth a better experience are: 

  • Let your care provider know of your past experience and fears you have for this birth so you can discuss and work through them
  • Have a birth plan. Empower yourself by researching and making informed birthing choices. 
  • Be well supported- think about hiring a doula, having extra support people for the next birth or doing a birthing course such as hypnobirthing or calmbirthing. 

Where to get additional help and support:

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