Healing From A Difficult Childbirth: Understanding Childbirth Trauma

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Most women set out to get prepared emotionally and physically for the birth of their baby in some way, imagining what the experience will be like and even writing out detailed birth plans. So when things don't go as expected, what's supposed to be the happiest day of your life can lead to disappointment or crisis, and in some cases even traumatic stress.

What is Childbirth Trauma?

Birth trauma results from experiencing some part of childbirth as scary, frightening, distressing or life threatening. Simply put, if it felt traumatic to you, it was traumatic.

Post-traumatic stress disorder following childbirth is caused by real or perceived trauma during delivery or postpartum, resulting in feeling that you are not in control of what's happening while also fearing for your life or your baby's life. Traumas that can lead to postpartum post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) include:

  • Unplanned C-section

  • Feeling powerless, out of control during childbirth

  • Not having your wishes respected

  • Lack of support and reassurance during/after delivery

  • Poor communication during/after delivery

  • Other emergency interventions( use of forceps/extractor)

  • Your baby had to go to the NICU

  • Prolapsed cord

  • Previous traumas, such as rape or sexual abuse, traumatic losses, previous medical trauma

  • Severe physical complication or injury related to pregnancy or childbirth(for example, 3rd or 4th degree tears, pre-eclampsia/emclampsia, hyperemisis, postpartum hemorrhage)

According to Postpartum Support International, about 9% of women experience postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder following childbirth. Women with a previous trauma, including childhood abuse, rape or sexual abuse, are at a higher risk for experiencing postpartum PTSD.

Common Symptoms of PTSD Following Childbirth:

  • Intrusive re-experiencing/replaying of a past traumatic event(of childbirth, or previous traumas)

  • Flashbacks or nightmares(replaying the birth in your dreams)

  • Avoidance of reminders connected to the event, including thoughts, feelings/emotions, people, places and details (for example hospitals, doctors, any reminders of childbirth including babies and other new moms, hearing other women's birth stories)

  • Feeling on edge, unable to relax

  • Anxiety/panic attacks

  • Feeling detached, “things don't seem real”

  • Easily startled

  • Hypervigilant

  • Sleep disturbance

  • Irritable or angry mood

  • Excessive worry about the baby/checking on the baby

Emotionally Traumatic Aspects of Childbirth

For many women, the most traumatic aspects of childbirth are caused by something other than a medical emergency. The way that women are treated or spoken to during labor and delivery can cause extreme distress--lack of communication, not feeling supported or reassured, or feeling pressured into making critical, complex decisions quickly during labor or immediately following the birth. Measures that are seen as routine or medically necessary for a medical professional may feel overwhelming to a new mom, and just intensify the feeling that you're out of control and helpless to help yourself or your baby.

If childbirth was difficult for you, it's important not to dismiss or minimize this part of your experience, especially when your distress or fears continue longer than the first month after your baby is born.  Postpartum depression, anxiety and PTSD are treatable. If you'd like to learn more about how I can help, please contact me for a free phone consultation at (626) 808-5463 or write to me at hollyaevansmft@gmail.com