Giving birth again after a traumatic birth can evoke a range of emotions. Learn more about how birth trauma affects the brain, determine if you experienced birth trauma, and how to overcome it.
If you are preparing to have another baby after a traumatic birth, there are some helpful things to know to help you feel empowered and ready. This article on overcoming birth trauma includes:
- How trauma affects our bodies
- What is birth trauma?
- How do you know if you have birth trauma?
- How to prepare for another birth after a traumatic birth
- Resources for healing from birth trauma
How trauma affects our bodies
Before we begin, let’s define trauma and discuss how it impacts the brain.
Trauma can be defined in various ways. For this article, I’d like to share with you a definition from Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, the author of The Body Keeps the Score and a lead researcher in the field of trauma.
He defines trauma as “an event that overwhelms the central nervous system, altering how we process and recall memories.”
When we experience something traumatic, the memory becomes stored in our brain as though it is still happening. It’s as if we can’t distinguish the experience as having occurred in the past.
How trauma affects our brain
1. The amygdala becomes overactive
The amygdala is like the alarm center for the brain. It’s responsible for activating our “fight or flight” reaction, so when it becomes overactive, it has difficulty distinguishing real, bit, threats from perceived or little threats.
When it fires, it shuts down our higher or critical brain functions. It fires so quickly that the rest of our brain and body can’t keep up to analyze the threat level.
Trauma is an event that overwhelms the central nervous system, altering how we process and recall memories.
2. The hippocampus becomes underactive
The hippocampus is the area of the brain responsible for filtering information. It stores our short-term memory and is what relates a recent experience to a past experience.
3. The pre-frontal cortex becomes underactive
The pre-frontal cortex is responsible for critical thinking, so when it is inhibited, it makes it harder to regulate thoughts and emotions by taking our time to carefully consider how we may want to respond (as opposed to reacting) to something.
When the amygdala is triggered, the connection between the amygdala and the other parts of the brain is impacted, causing the memory to be organized in a way that affects your life with the symptoms mentioned in the next section.
What is birth trauma?
So, how does trauma correlate with birth trauma? Let’s dive in.
Birth trauma can refer to birth injuries for the birther or the baby. Birth trauma can also be when a birthing individual is experiences symptoms of PTSD after giving birth.
Symptoms of birth trauma can include:
- Intrusive thoughts
- A change in mood or behavior
Intrusive thoughts may include flashbacks, reexperiencing part of the birth, and unwanted or uncontrollable thoughts or images.
Avoidance might look like avoiding medical professionals, avoiding driving past the hospital, or seeing or hearing birth stories.
Hypervigilance which means being on high alert, would result in the parent viewing everything as a hazard.
A change in mood may include symptoms that mimic anxiety or depression.
How do you know if you have birth trauma?
A good indication that someone may have birth trauma would be that they thought their life or their baby’s life was in immediate danger during pregnancy, birth, or postpartum, or they experienced some kind of abusive or neglectful care that resulted in experiencing some of the symptoms listed above.
Ultimately, if you believe that your birth was traumatic in some way, your feelings are valid, and you can move forward in processing your trauma as needed.
How to prepare for birthing again after birth trauma
Pregnancy after birth trauma can feel so terrifying that it’s debilitating. Here are some ways to prepare for birthing again after a difficult or traumatic birth:
1. Process your previous birth
Many ways to integrate trauma have been researched and proven effective. Treating trauma teaches you to regulate your brain’s reactions and their impact on your body.
You integrate the experience as having happened in the past. From birth debriefs, to breathwork, yoga and mindfulness, somatic experiencing, and EMDR, your options for processing and/or healing your trauma are almost endless.
Here are just a few resources to get you started on finding support in processing your traumatic birth experience:
- Dancy Perinatal Trauma Informed Professionals
- Postpartum Support International Directory
- EMDR Therapist directory
If none provide an option in your area, you can look for a trauma therapist near you.
2. Consider how you want to birth
To prepare for a positive birth experience the birther should determine how they feel safest giving birth. Is it to have a Repeat Cesarean (RCS), a Vaginal Birth after Cesarean (VBAC), or an initial cesarean, or another vaginal birth?
After processing your birth, the birther and their support professional can explore what birthing options make them feel the safest based on the factors that made their last experience traumatic.
3. Reset your mindset
Whether giving birth vaginally or via cesarean, working through the fears held consciously and subconsciously supports your entire pregnancy and birth.
Fear of birth begins the “fear, tension, pain cycle,” creating a more painful childbirth experience and, according to some research, causes longer labor.
Shifting the mindset about birth creates a proactive approach to preparing for a more positive birth experience where the birther knows they have comfort measures that will work for them.
This preparation also creates an element of control for the birther; knowing that birth is unpredictable, there’s comfort in knowing they have control over their preparation.
4. Choose your birth team and location carefully
The client-practitioner relationship is important to the feelings of safety and hormones released during birth. The location of birth also plays an important role.
Practitioners have various levels of trust in physiologic birth. The national cesarean rate is much higher than it needs to be. If physiological birth is desired, check on your birthing location’s (hospital or birth center) cesarean numbers. Do they trust birth? Do they support your autonomy in birthing?
In addition to your main provider, research shows that having a doula present decreases your risk of interventions.
When it comes to your baby registry, can you ditch the new baby outfits in exchange for a doula fund?
5. Birth Preferences: Learn about birth and your rights
Regardless of the type of birth you’re planning, learning about birth and your rights is another way for birthers to take a little bit of control over the birthing experience.
Out-of-hospital birth education courses can give a full spectrum of all birth-related information instead of focusing heavily on hospital policy. Research has shown a correlation between more childbirth education with lower chances of experiencing trauma.
6. Create a postpartum plan
A postpartum plan helps you prepare for any postpartum mood disorders, all of which are exacerbated by sleep deprivation.
If you do nothing else, plan to get quality sleep, proper nourishment, and some mental health check-ins with a close friend or mental health professional.
You may also consider including pelvic floor physical therapy, occupation therapy for scar healing, or lactation counseling in your postpartum plan.