Understanding Birth Trauma

You’ve been patient, waited 9 months, and dealt with all of the aches, nausea and fatigue in order to get to your delivery date. You may have an ideal birth story in your mind; many of us do. Some parents imagine a specific atmosphere while delivering (e.g. support people around, delivering at home). Some parents plan pain management strategies (e.g. I want an epidural). Others are keen to have skin to skin contact immediately after delivery. No matter what your plans are for delivery, there is hope that things go smoothly. Unfortunately, birth trauma can pull us far away from our ideal birth story.

Trauma is an unexpected and stressful experience that alerts our system of danger. We become acutely aware of impending harm or threat to our being. A birth becomes traumatic when we are fearful that we, or our baby, will die. Birth traumas happen in about 1 in 4 deliveries. These parents experience feelings of being abandoned, helpless, disrespected, scared, overwhelmed or powerless during their birth experience. Approximately 9% of parents experience their moods worsening into a diagnosis of postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder.

Types of Birth Traumas

There are various complications that can happen during or after delivery. Common birth traumas include:

understanding birth trauma. postpartum PTSD. Kasi Shan Therapy. Counselling in Kitchener, Ontario.
  • Emergency treatment following birth (e.g. stay in NICU)
  • Stillbirth/neonatal death
  • Preterm deliveries
  • Assistance during delivery (e.g. use of forceps)
  • Unplanned c-section
  • Prolapsed cord
  • Feeling a sense of abandonment or powerlessness
  • Lack of support or clarification during and after delivery
  • Lack of privacy or dignity
  • Physical complications (e.g. postpartum hemorrhage, unexpected hysterectomy, perineal tears, prolapsed uterus)

Following these birth traumas, caregivers begin to notice a change in their own moods and capacities. Similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, survivors can experience:

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  • Extreme sensitivity and awareness to surroundings (a.k.a. hypervigilance)
  • Easily startled
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Change in appetite
  • Memory blocks (unable to remember parts of the traumatic experience)
  • Difficult coping behaviours
  • Intense shame, irritability, or anger
  • Suicidal urges
  • Sleep difficulties and nightmares
  • Difficulty in social relationships
  • Unpleasant intrusive thoughts
  • Flashbacks
  • Pain, sweating, trembling, when thinking of the birth
  • Avoidance of birth reminders (e.g. being with own child, seeing other babies, hearing other birth stories, medical settings)
  • Anger towards medical professional or others involved during delivery
  • Poor attachment with baby

As with any mental health struggle, this is not a matter of will power. You are not choosing to respond in this way. You are not in control of these overwhelming emotions. When traumatic experiences occur, our system cannot always manage. We lean into whatever coping strategies are available to help us survive. Some of these coping strategies are done intentionally (e.g. avoiding the baby), and other times, we have limited control over them (e.g. bursts of anger).

What influences PTSD?

During the first month following a birth trauma, we want to monitor a parent’s well-being. This time is pivotal. Trauma survivors continue to assess the world and whether it is safe and predictable once again. They need to see that this birth trauma is a unique experience, and that it is highly unlikely to reoccur. Grief, anger, anxiety, wanting to understand, and seeking support are all natural forms of processing that tend to occur during this phase. The body’s ability to naturally process and return back to a sense of safety can be influenced by the following factors:

Prenatal Stressors

Prenatal stressors can include miscarriages, unplanned pregnancies, health scares, physical complications, unexpected bed rest, or fertility stressors. During these months of pregnancy, an individual can survive a variety of unexpected hardships, such as financial burdens, divorce, or bereavement. Furthermore, some pregnant couples have lived through a traumatic experience earlier in life (e.g. medical traumas).

It is understandable that these parents enter the delivery room feeling more cautious and nervous. If we have experienced any of these earlier adversities, our nervous system has already been fighting for some time to cope. It is already experiencing symptoms like hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts and nightmares. When we have already experienced trauma, our window of tolerance becomes narrower. Another stressful event can push us past our limit of tolerance.

Interactions with medical staff

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The interactions you have with your healthcare team can immensely influence your experience of child birth. How did your healthcare provider connect with you following a miscarriage? Was there space for you to grieve or did your provider seem too busy? Was the physician empathetic or was he or she scornful? If you are already wary of medical staff, how would you feel entering a delivery room?

Deliveries are busy times times, and your healthcare team is focused on moving things as efficiently as possible. However, at a time when you feel vulnerable, it can easily feel like your healthcare providers are curt, dismissive or inconsiderate of your emotional needs. When decisions like C-sections or taking the baby immediately to NICU are outside of your decision making, it can feel like your autonomy and sense of control has been taken away. The medical team’s decision to take these steps are likely valid; however, caregivers are left feeling powerless and confused.

Lack of support

It is natural to want to hide when we are grieving. It is natural for us to avoid others if we feel ashamed or responsible for a difficult birth. Isolation and loneliness tend to worsen our moods. There is so much healing that occurs when we feel someone truly understands and recognizes our pain.

When parents express grief and distress following a birth trauma, many family members do not know how to respond. Our friends and family have good intentions when they reassure with comments such as: “At least the baby is here,” or “Count your blessings,” or “Be grateful for what you have”. These types of comments are, unfortunately, invalidating. A parent continues to feel alone and misunderstood by their support team.

understanding birth trauma. postpartum PTSD. Kasi Shan Therapy. Counselling in Kitchener, Ontario.

To offer better support, please ask caregivers if it’s okay to be with them during this time. If these parents want to talk, please listen with an open-heart. When we are grieving, our support team cannot fix the past or make the pain go away. However, by offering a safe space for these intense emotions, our friends and family provide us opportunities for healing.

Healing from a birth trauma:

Not everyone requires extra intervention following a birth trauma. Support from loved ones and time can be enough to help someone work through this intense and difficult experience. However, for more complicated situations, like postpartum PTSD, it’s imperative we reach out for help.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an incredibly effective way to process and heal from birth traumas. This therapeutic modality helps an individual speak about traumatic memories while using bilateral stimulation (e.g. eye movement, audio cues, tapping) for short sets of time. In using this combination, EMDR triggers the traumatic memory network in the mind. Participants notice a reduction in distress and vividness to a traumatic memory. They also notice how the mind works to form connection with other events that have impacted this trauma, or have been impacted because of this trauma. Depending on the complexity of the traumatic events, clients can start to see improvement within 6-12 sessions. If you would like to learn more about EMDR, I encourage you to read this earlier post.

If you are struggling following a birth trauma, please do not stay silent. Reach out to a safe person such as a family member, friend, or a professional. If you would like to work through your birth trauma using EMDR or other effective therapy styles, please reach out.

Warm regards,

Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW
Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW

Kasi Shan Therapy is located in Kitchener, Ontario. She offers in-person and online appointments supporting individuals with struggling with trauma and perinatal mental health.

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