WHEN BIRTH BECOMES A TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCE

There is no doubt that the birth of a child is an intense experience.  Your body goes through the physical transition of delivering a baby and you become a mother.

Many women are afraid, or at least nervous, as they anticipate their labor; yet they are always hopeful that they will end up with a healthy baby to take home.

As your pregnancy progresses, the impending birth becomes a central event in your life.  It will be a long-lasting memory that you will usually remember decades later.  If all goes well, giving birth will leave you with a sense of accomplishment and completeness.

Although most women have positive birth experiences, sometimes things do not go according to plans.  A percentage of women will experience events that will pose threats to her or her baby.  These women may end up feeling fearful and even helpless.

Here are some events that can cause a great deal of stress during birth:

  • Emergency cesarean sections
  • Fast and painful labor without enough time for pain medication
  • Long painful labor with inadequate pain relief
  • High level of obstetric interventions
  • Forceps deliveries
  • Fetal or neonatal death
  • Babies born with disabilities
  • Premature infants or infants that need special care (NICU)
  • A degrading child birth experience
  • Previous trauma or sexual abuse

Even though any of the above can be very stressful, research shows that these experiences, in and of themselves, do not necessarily result in a traumatic birth experience.

However, a traumatic birth experience often results if a mother experienced any of the above birth stressors and also:

  • lacked communication with their medical providers,
  • felt uninformed and unclear about what was happening, or
  • did not receive emotional support while in pain

In other words, it is how the medical and support staff responds to the original birth stressors that leads a woman to perceive her birth as traumatic.  When women feel out of control and powerless to affect the outcome of their birth and/or disappointed that it did not go as expected and hoped for, they remember the experience as distressing.  Interestingly, the medical staff usually view the same birth as routine.

Traumatic Birth Can Lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

In extreme cases, the trauma experienced at birth can lead to PTSD symptoms- this only occurs in 1.5%-6% of births.  PTSD typically occurs when the stress during birth was severe (e.g. your life or your baby’s life was in danger; labor caused serious injury to you or the baby; etc).

Signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Due to a Birth Trauma include:

  • Intrusive memories, flash backs, nightmares of the traumatic birth
  • Avoidance and isolation from family, friends or your children
  • Numbing and dissociating; turning into a ”shadow of your former self”
  • Increased arousal, hyper-vigilance and overprotection of their baby
  • Difficulty sleeping, nightmares, generalized anxiety, and a general fear that something will happen to your baby
  • Depression, anger, and anxiety causing significant distress that compromises your ability to work and function socially

A painful and/or traumatic birth experience can also have a lasting influence on you and your family.

Lasting Effects of a Difficult or Traumatic Birth (if Counseling is Not Sought):

  • Poor self-esteem and a feeling that you have failed as a mom
  • Fear of getting pregnant and giving birth again
  • Difficulty bonding with your baby
  • Avoidance of physical contact and sex with your partner
  • Evasion of social situations and feelings of loneliness
  • Postpartum depression
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

How to Heal From a Traumatic Birth

If you had difficult or traumatic birth, here are a few things that may help you recover emotionally:

  • Debrief with Someone

After any highly emotional experience- whether positive or negative, we all have a need to talk about and have our emotions acknowledged.  Giving birth to a baby is a life-altering experience in any woman’s life- even if you have had a positive birth, you probably feel the need to debrief, and talk about your labor.  If you’ve had a stressful or traumatic birth, you may need to tell your version of what happened many times.

Research suggests that debriefing right after birth can reduce the frequency of Postpartum Depression and the severity of PTSD.  One study showed that women who debriefed with a midwife two days postpartum were 13.5 times less likely to experience anxiety and 8.5 times less likely to be depressed three weeks postpartum, in comparison to mothers who did not debrief.

  • Request a Meeting with your Doctor

When you are ready, schedule an appointment with your doctor to go over your medical records and request an explanation of what happened.  Try to attend with your partner so that you can both ask questions.  Women usually meet with their doctors six weeks postpartum, but if you do not feel ready to do it then, allow yourself some extra time.

  • Talk to your Partner

Being able to express yourself with your partner or close friends may help you make sense of what happened.  Try to create your own support group of close family and friends that will be empathic and willing to hear your story without judging you or trying to fix it.  Be aware that if your partner witnessed the trauma, he may feel responsible for what happened.  Speaking to someone that is not emotionally involved, such as therapist, may be a better option.

  • Join a Support Group

Find a support group of women that have gone through similar experiences.  You will not only feel validated, it will also reduce sense of isolation.

  • Find Professional Help

Although friends and family may initially be responsive to learning about your traumatic experience, they may not understand your continued need to talk about and reflect on it.  You may require a specially trained counselor who works in the area of reproductive trauma to help you with your feelings and any symptoms of PTSD.

If you look back at your birthing experience and wish that things had gone differently and if memories still disturb you today, you may benefit from therapy.

The fact is that your traumatic experience will not disappear.  However, you are not doomed to suffer.  Having a therapist that specializes in treating birth trauma can alleviate your pain and help you experience a more joyful and meaningful time with your baby.

Call for a FREE-10minute phone consultation at (281)267-1742

Dr.Irena Milentijevic is a licensed psychologist who specializes in helping mothers and those hoping to be mothers overcome stress, loss, and depression.  Her offices are located in Houston and the Woodlands, Texas.  Visit her website, www.DrIrena.com to get her free report, “Moms and Mom Wannabes: 10 Ways to Overcome Depression and Reclaim Your Sanity.”

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