Could you experience birth trauma? 

Many things can happen in unexpected ways during the process of being pregnant, having a baby, and becoming a mother. Some of them will be unavoidable. Some of them might be created by the systems we have in place for birthing. Some of them will be informed by thought patterns and beliefs we have held for a long time before even thinking about having a baby. If women don’t feel central to the process of birthing or like they were cared for as needed, they may experience their birth as traumatic. 

Your birth may feel traumatic to you if you experience physical damage or interventions, such as an instrumental birth, perineal tear or bladder damage. Your birth may feel traumatic to you if you experience psychological or emotional distress. 

Birth Trauma

Statistically, few people will have life threatening complications during birth, however it is their perception of the events that is the important thing. When giving birth we need to feel warm, safe, uninterrupted, nurtured and like we have some level of control.  

Much about labour and birth feels out of control, and this can be difficult to process in a society where we are expected to have individual control. We are encouraged to make a birth plan without fully understanding what labour is or the options we have. When we deviate from our plan, this can feel like a failure. The feeling that we made a choice or decision about how and where to give birth that did not work out as we hoped may leave us with feelings of failure in ourselves. We can tell ourselves we should have researched more or advocated for ourselves. But some things we can’t control, and we have to let go and allow ourselves and our experiences to be flawed. If birth does not happen how, you want it to, this is not your fault. Allow yourself to feel all of the feelings, but not to take responsibility. 

Being able to breastfeed successfully is also viewed as an important component of becoming a mother. Little information is shared on the impacts that birth interventions have on this process, and so women carry the feeling of failure if they struggle to master the skill. If birth hasn’t gone to plan it can become very important to women to breastfeed and the emotional significance of this may not be acknowledged. 

It may be many months before your experience starts to feel traumatic. There is no timescale to this. Access help to process your birth when the time is right for you. You may not want to go back to the environment where you birthed, so ask what options are available to you.  

What you can do 

  • Some preparation that can be useful is to figure out how you can feel present in your birth, how you can keep your agency and feel central to the process, and who and what make you feel calm and safe. 
  • Educating and learning to advocate for yourself can be useful tools in this space. However, you may not be able to do this when you are in labour. You could employ a doula or have a support person who can help you navigate pregnancy, birth, and the postnatal space. 
  • Ask for a realistic view of labour and birth and how the system works. 
  • Ask for help with breastfeeding. Have as much skin-to-skin contact as you can.  
  • After having your baby, share your story. Repeat it. Process it. Integrate it into your life’s story. Get help doing this if necessary.
  • Counselling and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) are useful to help process and reduce symptoms, as are mindfulness, women’s health physios and building a strong social network. 


Further information and Resources: 

Birth Trauma Association 

Make birth better network 

How to heal a bad birth M J Bruijn D A Gould 2016 

A good birth A Drapkin Lyerly 2014 Penguin

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