Understanding & Coping with Birth Trauma

Written by: Bentley, Doula

Giving birth to a child is a major life experience, and every birth is unique. This momentous event can bring a sense of joy and accomplishment, but for some, birth is a traumatic experience. A birth may be physically or emotionally traumatic, and having a traumatic birth can significantly impact the emotional and physical well-being of a birthing person. Fortunately, if you have experienced a traumatic birth, there are steps you can take to process the event and heal. You are not alone.  

What Makes a Birth Traumatic?

Research has yet to adequately define what constitutes a “traumatic birth”; however, I argue that trauma is not something that can always be measured. Indeed, trauma is something that is felt and experienced, regardless of whether other people perceive it or not. Trauma is “in the eye of the beholder.” Birthing people who have had an apparently “normal” birth with no interventions may perceive their experience as traumatic, and that feeling is absolutely valid, too. 

For many, birth trauma is linked to experiencing a loss of control, a lack of respectful communication from providers, inadequate support, feelings of fear and distress, or unexpected medical interventions. The delivery route (vaginal versus Cesarean) has also been shown to influence birth trauma rates [1]. Nonetheless, a 2010 study in the Journal of Advanced Nursing found that women who have experienced a traumatic birth identified “feeling invisible and out of control,” being treated inhumanely, “feeling trapped,” feeling “a roller coaster of emotions,” and “disrupted relationships” as a result of their birth experience [2]. A traumatic birth is also often associated with poor psychological, emotional, and physical outcomes [3].

PTSD & Birth

For some, having a traumatic birth may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), so it is important these women get support and are given an opportunity to genuinely process and heal from their experience. Further, efforts should be made by providers to prevent birth trauma as much as possible. The biggest way to do this is to prioritize informed consent and overall patient-centered care. As Elmir and colleagues argue, “Healthcare professionals must recognize women’s need to be involved in decision‐making and to be fully informed about all aspects of their labor and birth to increase their sense of control.”    

Steps Towards Healing

An important step in healing from birth trauma is processing the event. Women and birthing persons who have experienced a traumatic birth often report that they have not had the opportunity to voice their distress, and some do not share their feelings about their birth because they fear they will be dismissed [4]. Various support organizations exist to provide support and resources for those processing their birth. Peer support, online support, and one-on-one support (possibly with a therapist) are all proven to be helpful tools as well. Another option is to write about your experience. Research has shown that writing can help you heal from trauma, and journaling can be extremely therapeutic. 

Your Emotions are Valid

If you have experienced birth trauma, it is also important to give yourself grace. Your hormones are shifting after birth, and transitioning to life with a little one is a big life adjustment. Do not judge yourself for the emotions you may be feeling, whether that is grief, fear, or shame. Everything you feel is valid. Any activity you can do to bring your stress levels down is going to be helpful, whether that is listening to music you love, eating a warmly nourishing meal, doing skin-to-skin with your baby, or getting some sunshine on your skin. Also, remember that healing is not linear, and it is not something that can be rushed. Do not feel like you need to process this alone--seek and accept as much support as you can. 

Remember that you are not alone, and you do not need to process this alone. All-in-all, healthcare providers need to work toward implementing more adequate continuity of care models that allow for better postpartum support. There also needs to be a shift in emphasis away from the retort of “healthy mom, healthy baby” as the most important birth outcome. We know that many healthcare providers are not communicating effectively with women during labor, and this lack of direct and respectful communication can cause distress. Whatever your emotions are towards your birth experience, even if they are negative, they are valid.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Bentley (she/her) is a birth, postpartum, and bereavement doula in Northern Colorado. She is passionate about providing intentional support to birthing persons through all stages of the birthing process, and witnessing birthing persons discover the power and wisdom of their bodies. Bentley is a member of the Inclusive Birth Collective, providing doula support to underrepresented community members in Northern Colorado. In addition to her doula work, Bentley is a graduate student in the Department of Communication Studies at Colorado State University, where she studies health communication, social support, and identity. Find more information about Bentley and her services on Instagram (@bentleypojo.doula) or on her website (www.bentleypojo.com). 

[1] Moczygemba, C. K., Paramsothy, P., Meikle, S., Kourtis, A. P., Barfield, W. D., Kuklina, E., Posner, S. F., Whiteman, M. K., & Jamieson, D. J. (2010). Route of delivery and neonatal birth trauma. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 202(4), 361.e1-361.e6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajog.2009.11.041

[2] Elmir, R., Schmied, V., Wilkes, L., & Jackson, D. (2010). Women’s perceptions and experiences of a traumatic birth: A meta-ethnography. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 66(10), 2142–2153. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2648.2010.05391.x

[3] Beck T.C. (2004) Birth trauma: in the eye of the beholder. Nursing Research 53(1), 28–35. [4] Moyzakitis W. (2004) Exploring women’s descriptions of distress and/or trauma in childbirth from a feminist perspective. Evidence Based Midwifery 2, 8–14.