Even with all the preparation and support you’ll get leading up to your baby’s birth, and even if everything goes right according to your caregivers, it can, on some occasions, be very wrong. A traumatic birth is intense, distressing and can lead to other problems down the track. But the good news is with a bit of forward planning there are things you can do to minimize some of the risks, and there are also things you can do to support your new family if your birth experience is traumatic for any reason.
Trauma can occur in any setting when you feel completely powerless against an overwhelming force. In birth, it can happen with a protracted labor, complicated delivery, emergency cesarean birth or if the baby becomes distressed for some reason.
Trauma is more likely to occur when something happens that’s completely unexpected and becomes increasingly overwhelming. Especially if it gets to the point of threatening the wellbeing of either mum or baby.
Unresolved birth trauma can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and also increase the risk of perinatal mental health issues, so it’s important to identify trauma and seek help as early as possible.
To reduce the risks for birth trauma, choose a birth environment and caregivers who provide honest and realistic information about birth and what to expect in the first few weeks afterwards, who give plenty of emotional support and choices along the way.
Women and partners who feel empowered, respected and in control of the birth process - or at the very least an active part in it - are less likely to become traumatized.
Parents who are treated in a patronizing, dismissive or disrespectful manner are more at risk.
If your birth experience was traumatic, expect to feel ‘not normal’ for a while. You will be recovering from psychological injuries as well as any physical ones you have experienced or seen. Both you and your partner should debrief with a trusted professional as soon as possible. You may find you have a need to talk about the birth repeatedly, and this can help reduce the shock.
Or, you may find one of you wants to talk and the other partner isn’t ready, don’t force them, and you may need to find an alternative good listener. Be gentle on yourself, and on each other. Don’t judge yourself or your partner, tell yourselves you could have done things differently or to just “get over it”. Trauma doesn’t work that way. So don’t let anyone else tell you this either – this attitude is likely to just delay your processing, healing and moving on.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a set of symptoms that commonly occur following a traumatic birth and can affect both birthing women and their birth partner. Symptoms include insomnia, panic attacks, being on edge all the time, flashbacks or nightmares, irritability or spats of anger, feeling detached from the baby and others, numb or empty or feeling like something bad can happen at any moment.
It’s not uncommon for traumatized parents to feel like they’re going crazy, and this is especially true if those around them don’t recognize the trauma and are celebrating the birth instead.
Some parents describe a traumatic birth as like having a bad car accident on the way to their wedding.
If friends refuse to listen to any “negatives” about the birth or professionals gloss over any emotional distress due to a lack of understanding birth trauma, this just increases a parent’s sense of isolation and helplessness and can exacerbate things.
Thankfully, help is available.
Debriefing for both parents after the event can minimize the ongoing effects of trauma and help prevent PTSD. Talk to a G.P. or counselor who can recommend treatment options, most of which are quite simple and only take a few weeks or months to complete. Visiting a psychologist who can use trauma treatment EMDR may only mean a few sessions. Connect with supportive, compassionate and understanding people, locally or on-line, they’re a great source of support.
Birth trauma can affect dads or partners in a unique way too. Sometimes partners can feel like they’ve failed to protect their loved one at her most vulnerable - and can feel guilty or ashamed about this. This can make it hard for a partner to talk about things and, if they can’t find a way, this can leave mum feeling even more helpless, abandoned and alone. It’s important to support and validate parents in this position with the knowledge that when things get very out of hand very quickly, going into shock is the normal response. When we’re in shock we’re likely to freeze or shut down, our brains don’t work properly and so normal reactions go out the window - even sometimes for people who are used to these conditions.
Being able to talk about things eventually is important for healing, even if you need help to do it.
If you’re a professional and working with new parents, becoming aware of the contributors and effects of birth trauma is the beginning of helping parents avoid or manage it.
If you’re working with a couple who have been traumatized by the birth experience and it’s part of your role, facilitate healing conversations with both parents or refer them to someone who can, as birth trauma can affect couple relationships well into the future.
The best part of this awful situation is supporting couples to be able to talk and hear what the birth experience was like for each other can help partners pull together, bring a deeper understanding of each other and give plenty of opportunities for much needed comfort for them.
Couples can form a stronger bond for going through something like this together.
For more information on birth trauma and perinatal mental health conditions see the COPE website.