TRIGGER WARNING: BIRTH TRAUMA – Please read with care.
What is trauma?
In order to understand what birth trauma is and if you have experienced it yourself, it is useful for us to define what trauma is.
Trauma is described as an experience which causes a deep sense of distress, fear, disturbance and helplessness. American Psychologist Pete Levine defines trauma as “Anything that our system can’t handle or process. It is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” Trauma can take us out of the present moment and take us back into the past and not allow us to move forward. Many women say that the word ‘trauma’ can be scary in itself and can seem too big to attach to their experience, as we are often conditioned to think of trauma as something like a war or a car crash. Women often also compare their own experience to that of others and judge themselves for struggling, leading to them not seeking the support that they need and deserve.
Gabor Mate, a Canadian physician, highlights that trauma is not in the event rather how we experience it and so it is individual to each person. It is about how scared, fearful and out of control you felt in the situation. Trauma can happen to anyone, nobody is exempt.
What is birth trauma?
Birth trauma is the feeling of distress experienced by a mother before, during or after childbirth. Whilst it can be physical, it is often emotional and psychological. Birth trauma needs to be validated because in society it is very much viewed, and expected, that birth is one the happiest, most joyous days of your life and that as long as your baby is healthy, that is the only thing that matters. But actually, it isn’t always the most joyous day of your life, there could be many other feelings you experience due to the trauma of birthing your baby.
Many women experience the effects of birth trauma alone and suffer in silence and don’t talk about their own experience. There are many different reasons women experience birth trauma and ALL of them are valid. It is estimated that up to 1 in 4 women who give birth may experience birth trauma in some form. And 1 in 25 mothers may show signs of PTSD at 12 weeks after giving birth.
Women often don’t acknowledge their birth as being traumatic this early and it can be years later that that feel that they have the emotional and physical capacity and time to start to process their experience.
During birthing itself, some of the experiences that may cause birth trauma include;
- Lack of pain management
- Being told not to make noise
- Lack of informed consent
- Cascaded intervention
- Lack of cues of safety – feeling frightened and scared
- Feelings of racism or discrimination
- Physical injury
- Partner not being able to be present
- Lack of communication
- Previous trauma
- Birth plan not being honoured where possible
- Loss of control
- Being sent home when scared
- Prolonged or fast labour
- Retained placenta
- Baby going into NICU
- Loss of any experience that means a lot to you
This list is not exhaustive and it is important to highlight that your birth experience was traumatic because you felt it was.
Giving birth is a rite of passage and how we enter motherhood is so important. We need to feel listened to and held when we are in our vulnerable state. If we enter motherhood in a state of fear and trauma this will affect our wellbeing, recovery and postnatal experience. At the time of the birth, you may have felt fearful or unheard and afterwards you might have felt numb, shocked, or guilty and maybe even experienced panic attacks, anxiety low mood, anger or rage.
Feeling negatively impacted emotionally and/or physically is not good for the mother, both mum and baby deserve to be well. Mothers’ wellbeing is so important and birth trauma can often mean that we knock ourselves down the priority list of being important. Validation of your birth trauma is a huge part of your healing.
How can you get support?
You might relate to some of these experiences and if you think you might be experiencing the fallouts of a traumatic birth it is important to seek help as early as possible. Some of the psychological symptoms might include experiencing what is referred to as the ‘baby blues, which are common around the time of birth, but if you are still experiencing them for 2 or more weeks after your birth you might have post-natal depression or anxiety from your experience. 25% of women have reported that some aspects of their birthing experience was traumatic.
You don’t need to just carry on, your feelings can be validated and worked through with support when you feel ready. A big part of healing is reclaiming your empowerment and feeling like yourself again. There is no time limit on healing and there is no trauma too small to heal from. Hopefully reading the above you will feel validated and gently encouraged to seek support when you are ready.
Hold yourself gently, look after yourself and please know that you are not alone.
If you need further support, please visit our Birth Trauma support bundle on our website which supports you to heal physically and emotionally following a traumatic birth experience.
Should you need more immediate support and intervention please visit https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/postnatal-depression-and-perinatal-mental-health/support-and-services/ to access a wide range of support services.