The Raw Truth of Parenting - Birth Trauma

Birth trauma is an under-diagnosed condition that many mothers go through. It is often misdiagnosed as post natal depression (PND) and, while PND can be a side effect of birth trauma, the former should be treated as a stand-alone problem. The Birth Trauma Association, which is run by two mums who have both experienced traumatic births, defines it as:

Birth trauma is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that occurs after childbirth. It is clear that some women experience events during childbirth that would traumatise any normal person, but for some women factors such as loss of control, loss of dignity, the hostile or difficult attitudes of the people around them, feelings of not being heard or the absence of informed consent to medical procedures contributes to what is known as birth trauma. 

Birth trauma isn’t confined to those women who have gone through an obvious physical “trauma”, such as losing a lot of blood during labour, or having an episiotomy, an emergency c-section or any form of intervention. It is about the physical and mental experience the mother goes through and her being unable to move on from it post birth. 

Birth is presented to expectant parents as something with rose-tinted glasses on.

Birth is presented to expectant parents as something with rose-tinted glasses on.

Some women compare birth trauma to watching an accident or car crash happen and being helpless to stop what is happening. They then go through feelings of anger and sadness afterwards, and replay the situation in their mind over and over, despite trying to move on from it. This can trickle down into the bonding experience with their baby and can lead to feelings of failure as a mother. Help is needed in the the form of an open recognition of birth trauma and support provided for those who need it. As ever, the preparation for the postnatal period is paramount to preventing these feelings of confusion, stress, crisis and misdiagnosis.

A close friend of mine suffered with birth trauma and it wasn’t recognised in the early stages. She kindly agreed to be interviewed to help raise awareness, but wishes to remain anonymous.

 

Some women feel disappointed when the reality of labour is very different to what they had wished for in their birth plan. Did you have a birth plan?

I actually had no real plan for my birth. I was happy to go with the flow and my birth plan only consisted of "get it out safely”. I ticked all the boxes for the possible drugs and decided to see how I felt on the day to determine an epidural or not. I was not nervous at all and, in a weird way, I was excited to experience how it would feel. 

Tell us about your labour...

My labour was horrific, traumatising, hard and fast. It was probably the worst possible outcome I could have imagined, apart from, of course, ending up with a healthy baby girl. In hindsight, my birth was probably the closest to 'all natural' you can get, yet it felt inhumane. I pushed on a few sips of gas and air, and felt my body tearing apart. I felt absolutely everything. The fast pace of my birth didn't do me any favours – contraction pain was trebled, as there wasn't a gradual build up to the 'finale'. I will never forget the look on the midwife's face when she saw my daughter's crown along with her chord wrapped firmly around her neck and her being blue in colour. I will always remember her sternly shouting at me to push 'NOW' with stunned eyes. For a while I did not know if my baby was alive as she was flung onto my chest under a heat blanket. I then began bleeding and got raced to theatre for two hours, while my husband was left holding our daughter. Part of the placenta had got stuck and so I literally had a surgeon’s arm inside me trying to pull parts of it out. Afterwards, I had a balloon inserted to stem the bleeding. It is an experience that I hope to forget, but it gets easier to digest with time and talking to others who experienced similar situations also helps.

What happened after you left the hospital and when did you recognise that you were suffering due to unresolved birth trauma? 

I was a mess post birth. I was in a lot of pain and had to return to hospital to have the balloon removed. I struggled to provide enough milk for my baby (very common with traumatic births) and thus struggled with bonding, which broke me. The emotional rollercoaster that followed was out of this world and I very nearly spiralled into a big black hole. It took me a good three months to really feel connected to my daughter. I was also in grievance for the trauma my body had been put through. I felt like it had been slaughtered and I was angry that the system had failed me and left me feeling shattered, both physically and mentally.

Did you have flashbacks to the birth and did it impact your behaviour? 

Absolutely. I still do, but they are manageable now. I'm beginning to forget. For the first three months I couldn't drive past the hospital without welling up. The other week I had my first period and menstrual cramps, which gave me flashbacks to the birth and I felt really upset. My husband has a film he made when he was wheeling my daughter and I from the high dependency ward to a private room and I can't watch it. I get too upset and it brings everything back. 

How do you feel about having more children given your traumatic birth? 

At first I would have said absolutely no, never again do I want to go through childbirth. However, given my history and the psychological trauma, I will be offered an elective Caesarean or confirmation of an epidural. Knowing that makes it easier and it is only recently that I can even contemplate having another. 

Did you lack any information or support on traumatic birth? 

We did the NCT course, but to be honest all we gained from it was a friendship group. It lacked real information about how things might be post birth, especially after a traumatic birth, and I would've liked more support regarding breastfeeding.  If I had been better supported and guided to recognise the signs of birth trauma then I think the first three months may have been easier, especially with breastfeeding. A support group for traumatic births would have been like gold dust. The only way it gets easier to deal with is to talk about the experience with others who have had similar situations. It's my form of therapy to move on and one day imagine doing it all again.


We're here 

If you recognise yourself and your postnatal experience in the above, talk to us. Please do get in touch by email (lauren@theparentingchapter.com) or telephone, if only for a chat. Our postnatal mental health expert also specialises in birth trauma and works with many parents daily. Alternatively, the Birth Trauma Association website - http://www.birthtraumaassociation.org.uk - is a fantastic source of information and support. 

The Raw Truth of Parenting Series

The Raw Truth of Parenting is a series of interviews with parents on areas of parenting that tend to be hidden, or not discussed openly. Our aim with the series, is to open up these areas and empower those parents who felt or feel the same. For expectant parents, we're not wanting to scare you, but instead, arm you for what might happen. And if you don't look at these blog posts now, remember that we've covered these areas and come back to us for information and support.