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Why We Need to Pay More Attention to Fathers' Birth Trauma

Feeling powerless to help mother or baby.

Key points

  • Fathers can experience birth trauma through witnessing actual or perceived injury or death to the mother or infant during labor and birth.
  • One in 10 fathers experiences mental health concerns after childbirth. Birth trauma increases this risk.
  • A common birth trauma theme that fathers report is feeling powerless and unable to help their partner and baby.
Tim Mossholder/Unsplash
Source: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

While research shows upward of 45 percent of new moms report experiencing birth trauma, there is much less attention paid to the experience of fathers. However, approximately 90 percent of fathers attend the birth of their child. As such, they are at risk of witnessing a complicated birth involving their partner and child, which would put them at risk of experiencing birth trauma. And, with contemporary definitions of trauma acknowledging that exposure to an event can be traumatic, a father can, without a doubt, experience the trauma of childbirth without giving birth himself.

Risk Factors

Birth trauma has been defined by Cheryl Beck as the perception that there is actual or perceived injury or death to the mother or infant due to events during labor and birth or because of medical intervention and/or treatment by health professionals.

There are personal factors as well as birth-related factors that increase a father’s risk of experiencing birth trauma. Personal factors that increase a father's vulnerability to birth trauma include:

  • Older paternal age
  • Fewer children
  • Single fatherhood
  • Mental health history
  • Feeling less confident and prepared about how to support their partner during the birth

Birth-related factors that increase a father's vulnerability to birth trauma include:

  • Obstetric and birth complications (e.g., hemorrhage)
  • Perceiving their partner in pain
  • Preterm birth
  • Unplanned pregnancy
  • Poor communication and support by the healthcare team

Paternal Symptoms and Impacts of Birth Trauma

About 1 in 10 fathers experience mental health concerns during the postpartum period. Fathers who report experiencing a traumatic birth are more likely to later develop these postpartum mental health concerns. In addition, the impacts of experiencing a partner's traumatic birth can include the following:

  • Feeling fear and anxiety
  • Experiencing flashbacks and nightmares about the birth
  • Relationship difficulties with their partner
  • Sexual and intimacy problems with their partner
  • Difficulty with parent-infant bonding

How to Reduce the Risk

While there is always a risk of complications during birth, if you are an expecting father, there are ways to reduce potential risks for you and your partner. Research demonstrates increased positive outcomes with support from a doula, a labor and birth companion who provides continuous information, physical support, and emotional support to the birthing person and partner.

Fathers can additionally participate in childbirth classes to increase their confidence going into birth and new parenthood. This is important because a father’s presence during labor and birth can be essential and has shown positive impacts on their relationship with both their partner and their bond with the baby.

How Fathers Can Cope After Birth Trauma

Fathers who experience distress after childbirth typically have difficulty reaching out for help and can go years without receiving professional support for the effects of birth trauma. One study found that only 3.2 percent of new fathers seek out mental health services. This can likely be attributed to societal messages men receive about what it means to be both a man and a father. If you are a father who experienced a traumatic birth and you are now struggling, or you know a new father who could benefit from additional help, below are a few suggestions:

  • Locate a therapist specifically trained in supporting dads’ mental health and trauma. You can find a provider who specializes in trauma-focused therapies such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) or cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT), which have been shown to be effective in treating trauma symptoms.
  • Fathers’ mental health is greatly impacted by maternal mental health; the strongest predictor for paternal depression during the postpartum period is maternal depression. This suggests that engaging in support for both partners and couple therapy can also be beneficial to the overall mental health of new families.

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

LinkedIn/Facebook image: christinarosepix/Shutterstock

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