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Trauma

How You Can Emotionally Heal After Birth Trauma

What to do after experiencing the psychological impacts of birth trauma.

Key points

  • Research finds that birth trauma is very common among mothers.
  • Birth trauma has many important psychological impacts on a mother, including increasing the risk for postpartum depression and PTSD.
  • Mothers who experience birth trauma should consult with a mental health professional, practice self-compassion, and seek out social support.

Childbirth can be a scary and traumatic experience for birthing mothers, as well as their partners. Research finds that up to 45 percent of mothers report experiencing “birth trauma.” Birth trauma is poorly defined in the research but may be any experience during the birth that is distressing or disturbing to the birthing mother and/or their partner and that causes ongoing distress for some time after the birth. Birth trauma can include medical complications for the mother or baby, emergency C-sections, lack of respect and compassion from medical professionals, resuscitation at birth, the infant being taken to the NICU, or feeling in extreme pain or out of control during labor. However, birth trauma can be any experience that the woman perceives to be traumatic. What a medical team sees as a successful and smooth delivery with no medical complications may have been traumatic to the mother.

Symptoms of birth trauma can include repetitive and intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, or nightmares, avoiding people, places, and objects that remind you of the birth, being overly aware of potential threats to you or your baby, feeling guilty or blaming yourself, and having difficulty remembering parts of the birth. Partners of birthing mothers who witness a traumatic birth may also experience birth trauma.

Birth trauma has a “ripple effect,” meaning it has long-term and wide-reaching impacts on many areas of a mother’s life. Birth trauma may negatively impact breastfeeding experiences, increase anxiety related to later pregnancies or birth experiences, disrupt bonding with your infant, and cause problems in your relationship with your partner.

Birth trauma also dramatically increases the risk for postpartum depression with some studies showing the risk for postpartum depression elevated 4 to 5 times in mothers reporting high levels of birth trauma. Birth trauma is also associated with an increased risk for postpartum depression in partners. Research also suggests that 4 to 6 percent of mothers go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following birth trauma.

Yet, despite the serious consequences associated with birth trauma, many mothers who experience traumatic birth are made to feel shameful or ungrateful if they discuss it as such. Mothers are often told that as long as they have a healthy baby that the birth doesn’t matter or to be grateful for any positive aspect of the birth.

So what should you do if you think you have experienced birth trauma?

  1. Consult with a mental health professional (ideally one who specializes in perinatal mental health and/or trauma), particularly if you have symptoms of PTSD (such as distressing and intrusive thoughts or flashbacks related to the incident that occur for more than a month and interfere with your daily life).
  2. Allow yourself to call it a trauma. Don’t let anyone (or yourself) invalidate your trauma by telling you it could have been worse or that you should be grateful. The trauma is defined by your emotional experience after the event. If you experienced it as a trauma, then it is a trauma.
  3. Seek out social support from support groups, other mothers, friends, or family during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Research finds that mothers with social support are less likely to experience PTSD after childbirth. Ask others for both practical and emotional support as you get through the initial difficult period.
  4. Tell your birth story to a friend, therapist, partner, or your journal. Research finds that telling a coherent story of the event after experiencing trauma may help with recovery and coping.
  5. Exercise self-compassion. If you feel guilty or blame yourself, remind yourself that the guilt is irrational. If you are struggling, think of what you would tell a friend who is blaming themselves in the same way.
  6. Plan for your next birth. If you would like to experience birth again, find a doula to support you in this goal (particularly one with experience with birth trauma). Research finds that support during labor and birth may reduce your chances of experiencing a traumatic birth again.
  7. Become an advocate. Advocate for more sensitive and responsive care for birthing mothers and increased mental health resources in the postpartum period.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

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Greenfield, M., Jomeen, J., & Glover, L. (2016). What is traumatic birth? A concept analysis and literature review. British Journal of Midwifery, 24(4), 254-267.

Ertan, D., Hingray, C., Burlacu, E., Sterlé, A., & El-Hage, W. (2021). Post-traumatic stress disorder following childbirth. BMC psychiatry, 21(1), 1-9.

Beck, C. T. (2015). Middle range theory of traumatic childbirth: The ever-widening ripple effect. Global Qualitative Nursing Research, 2, 2333393615575313.

Beck, C. T., & Watson, S. (2008). Impact of birth trauma on breast-feeding: a tale of two pathways. Nursing research, 57(4), 228-236.

Beck, C. T., & Watson, S. (2010). Subsequent childbirth after a previous traumatic birth. Nursing research, 59(4), 241-249.

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Chen, Y., Ismail, F., Xiong, Z., Li, M., Chen, I., Wen, S. W., & Xie, R. H. (2021). Association between perceived birth trauma and postpartum depression: A prospective cohort study in China. International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics.

Bay, F., & Sayiner, F. D. (2021). Perception of traumatic childbirth of women and its relationship with postpartum depression. Women & health, 61(5), 479-489.

Yildiz, P. D., Ayers, S., & Phillips, L. (2017). The prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder in pregnancy and after birth: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of affective disorders, 208, 634-645.

Pennebaker, J. W., & Seagal, J. D. (1999). Forming a story: The health benefits of narrative. Journal of clinical psychology, 55(10), 1243-1254.

Tuval-Mashiach, R., Freedman, S., Bargai, N., Boker, R., Hadar, H., & Shalev, A. Y. (2004). Coping with trauma: Narrative and cognitive perspectives. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 67(3), 280-293.

Dekel, S., Stuebe, C., & Dishy, G. (2017). Childbirth induced posttraumatic stress syndrome: a systematic review of prevalence and risk factors. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 560.

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