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What is birth trauma?

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Estimates vary but around 30% of women report finding parts of birth traumatic and have some birth trauma symptoms. For 1 in 25 women their symptoms do not dissipate over the first few weeks and would meet criteria for PTSD.

Perhaps instead of being joyful and happy, your experience of giving birth has been frightening. Perhaps your baby’s heartrate dipped, leading to an emergency caesarean section. Maybe you or your baby suffered injuries as the result of the birth. Or maybe you felt that you weren’t well looked after in labour, or you were not told what to expect, leaving you feeling alone and unsupported.

Birth trauma is very much ‘in the eye of the beholder’ (Beck, 2013), and a birth that is described as obstetrically ‘straightforward’ can be experienced as traumatic by those present. In fact evidence suggests its not always the experience of the birth per se which women/partners find traumatic, but rather how they were treated by those caring for them, such as feeling ignored or humiliated.

Birth trauma can also affect partners – watching someone’s birth can also be traumatic, and partners talk about feeling useless, helpless and unable to protect their partner. All these things can make it hard for people to speak openly about birth trauma and people can feel quite alone. 

Individual responses to trauma vary. Some common symptoms are flashbacks (intrusive memories of the birth, like on a video loop), nightmares, feeling on edge or irritable, feeling emotionally numb, and avoidance of things associated with birth (e.g. hospital). It can lead to guilt, or a feeling ‘I didn’t do it right and I let my baby down’. Sometimes trauma symptoms emerge immediately, other times symptoms present months afterwards or during subsequent pregnancy.

Birth trauma can also affect parent’s relationship with their baby, for example if you were separated from your baby perhaps you morn the loss of those important early moments.

Maybe you worry that you baby had a difficult time in birth and wonder if their babies are finding it harder to settle. It can also affect the couple relationship, perhaps one parent wants to talk about it and the other doesn’t. It can also affect subsequent births if women/couples delay their next pregnancy because of a fear of giving birth (known as tokophobia).

What can I do if I have birth trauma?

Firstly talk to your midwife or health visitor if you feel able to. They can monitor you and offer you extra support.

If the trauma symptoms persist after the first few weeks it may be that you would benefit from specialist trauma treatment, such as CBT or EMDR

You may find that you are offered something called Rewind Therapy, or Birth Trauma Resolution therapy, which may be provided by a midwife. This is not yet an evidence based treatment and not recommended by NICE. If this is offered to you, be aware that you can request an intervention recommended by NICE (national guidelines) instead.

The most important message is not to suffer in silence, speak out – there is support available. 

I can help you

Contact me for more information about how I can help you move forward after birth trauma. As a highly specialised perinatal psychologist I specialise in birth trauma therapy.

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Dr Miriam Inder – Helping you have Better Beginnings