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Birthing Trauma: What is a Traumatic Birth?

08/07/2023

While most births are uncomplicated, unforeseen complications sometimes arise. Some women experience significant trauma, either physically or mentally, during the birthing process and may experience symptoms typically associated with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. A traumatic birth can occur from numerous events that the birthing woman perceives as traumatic, such as an unexpected C-section, birth injuries, stillbirth, poor medical care, or even the childbirth experience not going according to plan.

Women who have experienced birthing trauma may find themselves feeling helpless, unsupported, numb, or guilty. They may even begin experiencing panic attacks and anxiety that can worsen if untreated.

Part of receiving support from birthing trauma requires awareness of the problem. This blog serves as a guide to offer support and resources for those who’ve experienced birthing trauma.

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Understanding Birth Trauma

What Is a Traumatic Birth?

Not all traumatic births require complications. Factors, such as a loss of control or feeling disrespected, can be enough for someone to experience trauma that can negatively impact their mental health. Intense pain, injury, or unexpected outcomes may also contribute to the trauma. Something to remember, however, is that trauma is subjective. What is traumatic to one person may not even be a blip on another person’s radar. Anything a birthing mother experiences as traumatic is enough to count as a traumatic birth, especially if it leaves a lasting negative impact on her mental health.

The Prevalence of Birthing Trauma

While complicated births are relatively uncommon, birthing trauma isn’t. According to the National Institutes of Health, up to 45% of new mothers experience some form of birthing trauma. Around 4% of women experience PTSD after giving birth.

Despite being so common, many choose not to report their experiences due to social stigma. They may question whether their experience was truly traumatic when so many women give birth every day or if they don’t have any lasting physical effects after recovery. They may also feel guilt because that moment, which was supposed to be one of the happiest days, has been tainted with negativity, causing them to bury the feelings in hopes they’ll go away. However, unresolved trauma doesn’t disappear on its own.

Recognizing Signs and Symptoms of Birthing Trauma

Common Signs and Symptoms of Birthing Trauma

Birthing trauma can present with various signs and symptoms that may cue women and their loved ones in on a potential need for support. Women may experience flashbacks and nightmares about the birth or may experience mood swings, anger, depression, or anxiety. Physical signs may also present, including disturbances in sleep and appetite or physical pain.

Trauma can also have a negative impact on the mother-infant bond. It may interfere with breastfeeding or cause the mother to question whether she’s good enough for her baby. Her self-esteem may suffer as well.

The Importance of Seeking Professional Help and Support for Trauma-Related Symptoms

If the symptoms associated with a traumatic birth aren’t addressed, they’re unlikely to resolve on their own. The most important first step is to discuss the event. Be open with health care providers, therapists, and loved ones and let them know about it. Resources are available to help. Seek out therapists experienced in birth trauma or ask for referrals from an OB-GYN.

Traumatic Birth Coping and Healing Strategies

Numerous coping strategies are available for those who’ve experienced birthing trauma, but the most important is self-compassion. A mother’s feelings surrounding her birth are valid, no matter how anyone else sees them. Being understanding of these feelings can help resolve them.

Engaging in self-care activities, such as relaxation techniques, journaling, and taking time to enjoy hobbies, can also help women struggling with trauma feel like themselves again, especially when they’re busy with a newborn and all the responsibilities that come with them.

Beyond self-care, therapy and counseling are highly effective in assisting with processing a traumatic birth and alleviating symptoms associated with it. Some of the most commonly used are cognitive behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. Seeking professional help is one of the most effective ways those with birthing trauma can recover.

Birthing Trauma Advocacy and Support

Part of what makes birthing trauma so prevalent is a lack of trauma-informed care and impersonal medical professionals who don’t take the mother’s wishes and autonomy into consideration. Without advocacy and awareness of birthing trauma and how it occurs even in medically uncomplicated births, this is unlikely to change.

One way to help is by advocating for better care. Mothers who’ve already experienced trauma, especially sexual, may find the birthing process more traumatic than someone without those experiences. Trauma-informed care seeks to reduce negative medical experiences by reducing or eliminating anxiety and triggering events during the treatment process. For example, a doctor may ask for consent and respect their patient’s wishes regarding an episiotomy, breaking a woman’s waters, or other invasive procedures rather than making the decision themselves. Women who’ve experienced birthing trauma can help raise awareness by sharing their birth stories and experiences online, in support groups, and with loved ones.

Several organizations also strive to improve the childbirth experience in medical settings with initiatives and advocacy, including:

Many of these organizations also offer support networks and resources for mothers who’ve experienced birthing trauma. Both online and in-person support groups exist to suit a variety of needs and make it easy to find assistance. Beyond that, many offer helplines and counseling that women experiencing the effects of birthing trauma may find useful.

Partner and Loved Ones Support

Partners and loved ones are two of the most important support systems for a woman who’s experienced birthing trauma. The best thing a partner can do for their loved one is encourage open and empathetic communication, offering understanding and compassion. By listening and validating emotions and concerns, loved ones can assist in resolving the trauma and supporting mothers through their recovery. Seeking therapy together can also help navigate these effects, showing the mother she has the support of her partner or family members and helping all involved develop good coping mechanisms.

Learn About Trauma-Focused Therapy at Beachway Therapy Center

Birthing trauma can be experienced during any birth, even if it’s uncomplicated, if the birthing mother feels the experience was traumatic. Without seeking support and guidance, the symptoms aren’t likely to go away on their own. Seeking support through therapy programs, such as Beachway’s comprehensive, holistic trauma therapy, can help. This therapy program is designed to encourage patients to engage in the treatment and recovery process, including those who’ve experienced birthing trauma.

With how widespread birthing trauma is, supporting mothers and their families is paramount. Raising awareness of birthing trauma, fostering an understanding of what it entails and how far-reaching the symptoms can be, are just a few steps in offering support to mothers and their families everywhere.