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

A Note on Taking Care of You

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When you're going through a stressful time, it takes a lot of work to try to “hold it all together”. Working so hard to push your emotions down to get through the day, or putting on a good face can be exhausting—and you may end up finding it difficult to take care of yourself in the most basic ways. During a crisis, a major life change, or while struggling with your mood and anxiety, your basic physical, social and emotional needs can easily slide to the bottom of your list of priorities.

For many people, the notion of self care can sound foreign, unnecessary, or even selfish. It can seem easier to keep pushing yourself through, but this can often prolong your problems. Whether you're a postpartum mom swept up in the moment to moment care of your family or someone struggling with anxiety or depression, tending to your own emotional and physical well-being can be a daunting, but very important task.

There is a very strong connection between emotional well-being and basic self care. At the most basic level, self care includes how well you sleep, your diet and exercise, and rest and relaxation. Other important types of self care focus on taking care of important relationships and your emotional well-being. Taking good care of yourself also helps build resilience, so that you can weather difficulties, and maintain a healthy relationship with yourself and others. What self care looks like is different for everyone—ranging from eating well to joining a support group, avoiding alcohol or setting a boundary by saying no. Here are some things to think about:

Keep It Simple

Just a small boost can get you moving in a better direction. If you're going through a challenging time, your mental, emotional and physical energy can easily become depleted. Symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD can make it difficult just to get out of bed. Deciding to make big changes or set ambitious goals for yourself are not likely to be successful-or helpful. But by paying attention to the physical and emotional signals that your body and mind are sending you, you can identify small steps that can help you make a little bit of time and space for yourself. When life feels overwhelming, focusing on the simplest ways of nurturing yourself is more likely help you find relief.

Think Beyond Physical Self Care

When you're busy just trying to get through the day, it can seem difficult to find the time and energy to do even the simplest things that might help you feel better. Depression, anxiety and PTSD commonly lead to difficulties in maintaining important relationships, and can make it difficult to meet the day to day demands of life(physically and emotionally). Asking for support(professional or from friends/family), deliberately checking in with a friend, or learning healthy coping skills can keep you connected to the important people in your life and the things you enjoy.

Saying No

Saying no doesn't come easily to everyone. If this is true for you, you may find yourself trying to make sure you don't let anyone down, even when it means sacrificing your own well-being. Asking yourself if you need to start saying no, let go of a few commitments or adjust your expectations of yourself is a good place to begin. And if saying no brings up feelings of guilt, self doubt or anxiety, then this might be a good time to take a look at how this issue is really impacting you.


If you’re going through a stressful time and finding it difficult cope on your own, help is available. To learn more about how therapy can help you overcome anxiety, depression and trauma/PTSD, please give me a call at (626) 808-5463 or email me at hollyaevansmft@gmail.com.  I look forward to talking to you- Holly