Bringing new life into the world is often depicted as a joyful experience. However, for some women, the journey through childbirth can be marred by a shadowy and silent companion known as birth trauma. The prevalence of birth trauma is higher than even I imagined, as someone who does this work every day. Studies show that about 45% of mothers report experiencing birth trauma. If almost half of new moms experience some sort of trauma during birth, why does it seem it is discussed so little? I think there is immense societal pressure on women to “be joyous” about birth and to negate their own negative birth experiences “as long as the baby is healthy.” While of course, as parents, there is nothing we are more grateful for than healthy children, we cannot use this as an excuse to overlook the trauma almost half of mothers are reporting to have experienced during their births. Birth trauma has the potential to have a profound and long lasting effect on the emotional and physical well-being of both moms and their children.
It is difficult to provide a definition of what birth trauma entails as it is such a personal experience for women. Birth trauma can be physical, psychological or emotional trauma experienced while in the birthing period. One of the more comprehensive explanations of birth trauma that I’ve come across states:
“Birth trauma can include late miscarriages or stillbirths, medical complications for the birthing individual or baby, emergency C-sections, resuscitation of the infant, hemorrhaging during or after delivery, any type of birth injury, the infant being taken to the NICU, the baby being born with disability or illness, or feeling in extreme pain or out of control during labor. Birth trauma may also include obstetric violence, which is any medical procedure performed without consent, a lack of respect or information from medical professionals, or anything that dehumanizes or takes away the rights of the birthing individual.” (Goodwin, 2023).
If birth trauma is not recognized and processed appropriately, it may lead to depression, anxiety or PTSD for the mother. Fathers may also be impacted in a similar way, as they were likely a direct witness to the birth trauma. Those who experience birth trauma may relive the trauma through flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, or physical symptoms. Others may experience the “fight or flight” mode of their trauma and constantly feel on edge, tense, irritable, anxious, or experience hypervigilance. Others may be in the avoidant category of dealing with their trauma and will overdo things to keep themselves busy, thus not having to think about the trauma. They may feel emotionally numb or may resort to drugs, alcohol, etc. to avoid their own memories and feelings. If a mother experiences broken trust in the medical system, she may become distrusting of medical professionals or feel that there is nowhere safe and secure to turn to, which can be physically harmful for a new mom. Some mothers may blame themselves and become overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, depression or sadness about their experience. In fact, mothers who have experienced birth trauma are 4-5x more likely to experience postpartum depression.
If you or someone you know has experienced a birth (or pregnancy) trauma and identifies with any of the symptoms above, it is imperative to find the right help. There is no shame in talking through your birth experience and the feelings associated with it. In fact, this is one of the only ways to help you heal from it. Many perinatal therapists are trained in helping mothers through birth trauma and coping with the feelings of anxiety, depression or symptoms related to PTSD that are likely to spring from their experience. At times, medication may be needed to help regulate the nervous system in order to be able to benefit from talk therapy.
Many mothers try to power through this time, thinking that the feelings will subside on their own, but most often the feelings resurface in later pregnancies or when thinking about becoming pregnant again. Birth trauma may also negatively impact spousal relationships and interrupt the bonding experience with your new baby.
If you are a new parent who has experienced birth trauma, it is never too late to get help. Please reach out to a professional who can help you process your birth experience. You deserve that and you are not alone.