Birth Trauma “ What Is It & How Do I Know If I Have It?” By Midwife Zoe

During pregnancy women ponder the birth of their baby, and their hopes, dreams and wishes for one of the most important days in the life of their family. When things slightly, or drastically, go not to plan, some women may experience Birth Trauma.

Birth trauma is unfortunately experienced by a growing number of women; the extent of the birth trauma may vary widely from woman to woman.

No matter whether you are dreaming of a beautiful home birth, a calm and positive birth center, a hospital birth, or choosing an elective caesarean section, sadly some women will experience the aftermath of a traumatic birth.

Although it is experienced by many women, most women do not talk about it and many may not even know they have it. This silence does nothing to help women move past their trauma. If anything, the birth trauma may become more traumatic by not acknowledging the emotions you are experiencing.

What is Birth Trauma?

When we talk about birth trauma we are referring to a variant of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that occurs after childbirth. Birth trauma is a normal reaction to events in labour and birth that you perceive as being scary, out-of-control, helpless, or painful. Birth trauma can result from pregnancy, birth or even during the postnatal period (breastfeeding trauma). The response may be one of intense fear, helplessness or horror, and often you will experience repetitive flashbacks of the event in a negative manner.

How Do I Know If I Have Birth Trauma?

Often women who have birth trauma experience some of the below feelings:

  • Feeling numb with your emotions
  • Nightmares of the birth
  • Panic attacks, sweating and palpitations
  • Emotions such as anger, irritability, jumpy or on-guard all/part of the time
  • Flashbacks of the event or vivid memories. Distressed, anxious, panicky when you are exposed to things that remind you of the event
  • Avoidance of anything that reminds you of the event. Some women never talk about their births, or avoid hospitals. In contrast, other women talk about their birth trauma all the time; this can be a way of expressing your extreme anger, hurt and fear

What Causes Birth Trauma?

There’s no standard cause of birth trauma. Every woman is different and what is traumatic to one woman may not be traumatic to another woman. Some experiences than can result in birth trauma include:

  • Treatment by health care professionals that was disrespectful or hurtful
  • Loss of control in a situation that was out of your control, or the feeling that your wishes weren’t respected
  • Traumatic birth “ episiotomy, caesarean section, forceps or vacuum birth, or a baby who was injured during birth resulting in temporary or permanent damage
  • Emergency situations like a caesarean section, post-partum haemorrhaging (loss of a lot of blood), baby became stuck after the birth of the baby’s head (shoulder dystocia) or another situation where your birth room became full of unknown people
  • Lack of pain relief when pain relief has been requested
  • Invasive procedures such as vaginal examinations, episiotomy, stitches that bring back negative thoughts
  • Separation from your baby after birth
  • Feelings of loss of control – an induction you didn’t want, a caesarean for a breech baby when you wanted a vaginal birth
  • Invasive procedures without explanation or your permission

Treatments for Birth Trauma

There are many things that may help you recover from birth trauma. You may find that one thing works better then another, yet whatever you do, make sure that you don’t ignore the feelings.

Here are some options:

  • A trusted friend or relative can help enormously – someone who knows you well, understands what it’s like to be you, and who accepts you. They need to be empathic and non-judgmental.
  • Family and friends can be of great help – something simple like having someone come and babysit whilst you get some sleep can be extremely helpful.
  • Some women see health care professionals and/or midwives to help them recover. Psychologists are fantastic to help with birth trauma. They provide you with excellent ways of helping you cope when a flash back occurs. Talking to someone who is not in your social circle is also great. Some women find they can’t quite say what they exactly feel to their family or friends however will open up to a psychologist.
  • Attending a birth trauma group – you can find groups around Australia where women who have had a traumatic birth come together and share their stories and coping mechanisms in a warm and friendly environment.
  • Natural therapies like yoga, massage, meditation, reflexology, or homeopathy may help.
  • Most importantly, during these times of recovery and healing, ensure you are taking care of yourself, eating well and having daily exercise.
  • Journaling is a great way to express your feelings in writing. Write your birth story from your perspective. As you write the story you may discover you see things more clearly or find the exact cause of the trauma. Drawing may also help.
  • Some women write a letter to their care providers (midwife/doctor). You may never send it, but this can help express your emotions. You could also write a formal complaint to the hospital if you feel you need to.
  • Some women find it beneficial getting a copy of their medical records. This can sometimes assist in finding answers to questions like, Why did that happen? Being able to read over exactly what happened in your birth from a midwife, doctor or other health professional’s perspective can be helpful. You may need assistance understanding the medical terminology so a debriefing with a health care professional would be a great idea.

What Can I Do To Avoid Birth Trauma?

  • Write a birth plan so that everyone knows your wishes for the birth. Please be understanding though that some of your  wants  may not come to fruition in certain situations like emergencies. It is important not to be super strict on every option. Be flexible if needed. Most health care providers will try and meet your needs and wants for the birth of your baby.
  • Be confident and assertive with your needs. If you feel the doctor or midwife that you are receiving care from does not support your wishes, consider changing health care providers. It is important to be on the same page with the person who will be caring for you in your birth.
  • Consider what you’ll need in order to feel safe during your pregnancy, labour and birth.

As a Midwife we hope that no-one ever experiences birth trauma, but at times it is out of our control to prevent some things from happening. Most midwives will always ensure that they talk you through every intervention performed to help prevent birth trauma from happening. My best piece of advice would be to debrief with your midwife at least once whilst you are still in the hospital, if not twice. Bringing up your worries from the birth while they are fresh is always a great thing.

Often in the end there is a positive point of personal growth that can come from birth trauma. The insight into your values, beliefs and morals, and the journey of healing, are all very positive outcomes that can help you move forward in all ways in your life.


(This article contains general information only and is not intended to replace advice from a qualified health professional. All information is written from the experience and knowledge of the person writing the post).