What is Birth Trauma ?

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‘Birth trauma is in the eye of the beholder’ (Cheryl Beck)

When it comes to birth it isn’t always a good experience for some families. Each woman’s experience of birth is unique to her. It is what she feels about her birth experience that is important.

What one woman may find traumatic another may not. Many things can cause a woman feeling her birth was traumatic. For some it maybe that birth was a very frightening event, maybe it was an emergency situation where the woman’s life and/or that of her baby’s was at risk. Maybe labour was very lengthy and/or very painful. It may be that a woman’s birth had high levels of medical interventions, such as induction, a caesarean section, episiotomy, or an other medical issue. It may be that a woman gives birth early and her pre-term baby requires care in neonatal unit. Sadly some women have a birth that results in damage or injury to herself and/or her baby. Some lose their babies at birth.

For other women trauma can result from the way she is looked after by the staff responsible for her care both during her pregnancy, during the birth of her baby or postnatally. A woman may feel a loss of control, dignity and privacy. There may have been a lack of information or a woman may feel she wasn’t listened to and her choices not respected or overlooked. She may feel she had medical procedures done without her consent or without proper explanation or that she was left with no choices. Or maybe the language used was unkind or cruel.

Some women find birth triggers or can add to previous trauma such as rape or domestic abuse. Other women find that a difficult pregnancy contributed to feeling traumatised.

Often women who feel traumatised from their birth feel isolated. Family and friends may not understand why she feels traumatised. So a woman can feel guilty and weak for not ‘coping’ with her birth . She may feel she should get over her birth experience. Often they will be told ‘at least you are ok and you have a healthy baby’.

Traumatic birth experiences can also damage relationships with partners, family members and friends as a woman feels no one understands her feelings.

Depending on the nature of the trauma a woman may feel unable to have further medical tests such as smear tests.

Sex may also be affected as a woman may fear further pregnancies, or even just the act of physical intimacy itself.

Many women who suffer birth trauma may struggle to bond with their baby, others may instead become overly anxious of their babies health and wellbeing and constantly worry about every aspect of caring for their new-born.

For a woman that has lost a baby during birth or whose baby has been injured during birth she may experience overwhelming guilt, she may feel like it is her fault, that she somehow failed her baby or that she should somehow have prevented it.

Feeling like they have no voice, are misunderstood and weak many women will seek to hide their true suffering, carrying on with the weight of trauma bearing down on them crushing hope and happiness as they try desperately to cling to normality. Everyday tasks become hard and just coping day to day can feel overwhelming. Their physical health too may suffer, they may struggle to sleep, eat and care for themselves.

Sadly birth trauma can be overlooked or misunderstood and wrongly diagnosed. Research suggests up to a third or women, describe their birth as traumatic. Most overcome this with support.
However, research suggests that between 1.7% and 6% of women go on develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after child birth. These women will need additional specialist professional mental health support and treatment. This doesn’t include those who do not speak out about their suffering, who are not acknowledged as having had a traumatic birth or misdiagnosed. This also does not include partners or birth workers who also may suffer birth trauma.

It is important that if a woman is struggling emotionally or physically following the birth of her baby that she is asked about her birth experience and given time to talk as well as offered support for her feelings.

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