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What Is a Traumatic Birth? Understanding the Steps to Heal

Mother recovering from birth trauma

Birth doesn’t always go as planned. Sometimes, it’s even traumatic. Here’s how to identify a traumatic birth and some ways to begin your physical and emotional healing journey.

As a counselor working with new moms, I have been fortunate enough to hear many different mothers’ birth stories. Some stories are shared with smiles; their faces filled with pride and happiness as they remember. Others have found it hard to hold back the tears long enough to get their story out. 

While women can share a similar birth story, their experiences can be entirely different. I think that is most important when working through birth trauma; it isn’t always the event itself that’s traumatic. Instead, it’s how the unique experience made the mother feel.

Mother recovering from birth trauma

Sharmon’s personal story of traumatic birth

I found the birth of my daughter difficult. It took me a long time to acknowledge that the experience was, in fact, traumatic, and by feeling that way, it didn’t mean I’m any less of a mother. 

My pregnancy had been relatively ideal, easy, and with no terrible symptoms. That quickly changed at my 24-week appointment, as the OBGYN was concerned that the baby measured far smaller than expected. I spent the next 12 weeks in and out of the hospital to regularly check on the baby as the OBGYN identified “soft markers” for a chromosomal abnormality, despite no concerns at the earlier abnormality scans.

My defense mechanisms took over, and I somewhat disconnected from my pregnancy out of fear of losing the baby. 

The night before delivery, my treating doctor reminded me that they were unsure what the baby’s condition would be and to prepare myself for possible NICU admission. My daughter was born, and a tiny baby was laid on my chest. I was all geared up to feel this rush of euphoria and indescribable love, and there was nothing. I felt nothing.

I was too terrified to look at my daughter and be faced with the reality of her diagnosis. She was sent to the NICU for four hours while I waited, feeling numb (emotionally and physically). 

My story has a happier ending than many I have heard. My daughter, although tiny, was healthy and had no underlying diagnosis or abnormality. I was, of course, relieved; however, then came the guilt. The guilt for disconnecting during the pregnancy and not having the immediate surge of love at birth.

What is considered a traumatic birth?

So, what is birth trauma? To start, let’s look at the definition of trauma. By definition, trauma is a distressing or disturbing experience that can be either physical or emotional. Some of the more commonly experienced birth traumas include (but is not limited to):

  • Prolonged labor
  • Physical or emotional neglect by medical staff
  • An unplanned emergency situation
  • Baby being sent to NICU
  • Babies born with abnormalities or medical concerns
  • Maternal injury
  • Feelings of loss of control
  • A threat or perceived threat to mom or baby

Birth trauma can manifest in various ways and possibly present as feelings of numbness, anxiety, depression, fear, and panic attacks. 

Giving birth can cause PTSD in new mothers

Though not all women experience birth trauma or postpartum PTSD, it, unfortunately, isn’t uncommon. Between 25 and 34 percent of women report that they view their birth as traumatic. In other words, up to 1/3 of women giving birth experience trauma. Some studies have suggested that 4% of women who give birth experience PTSD.

Mother with PTSD after a traumatic birth

Healing from a traumatic birth experience

I repeatedly work with mothers in therapy who are processing their traumatic experience and hear many comments that attempt to down-play the trauma they experienced. Whether those comments are thought or spoken by another person, they’re equally harmful to the traumatic birth’s healing process.

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Though often well-meaning, comments such as, “at least it’s over now” or “you’ll soon forget, and it will be all worth it” or “it could have been worse” tend to put women off from talking about their struggles.

In general, mothers don’t want to come across as complaining or ungrateful for their child, often neglecting their own healing process.

Birth is not a one-size-fits-all journey.

Sharmon Reddington

The sad reality is that many new mothers feel judged or criticized for “failing as a mother” if they admit to struggling. Wider acceptance of maternal mental health could help future mothers feel more confident in asking for help. 

There is an unrealistic expectation that birth is always a beautiful experience where the mother feels empowered and strong, followed by a deep, immediate love for her newborn. When a woman doesn’t have this experience, she may be left feeling guilt and shame. 

If your journey was a tough one, remember healing isn’t linear, be gentle with yourself and start over as many times as you need to. I would encourage you to share it with your partner, friend, sister, and therapist or even write it in a journal. The more comfortable we become conversing on these topics, the more likely we are to break the stigma attached to maternal mental health.

Explore additional resources for recovering from a traumatic birth

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