Traumatic Birth

Trauma, in general, is an event in which a person witnesses, experiences or perceives a threat to their life or physical safety. It is often said that trauma exists on a spectrum. This statement is not to minimize anyone’s trauma experience but rather to legitimize experiences that are often overlooked or discounted. Birth trauma encompasses a wide range of events. According to Postpartum Support International (PSI) such events may include:

Emergency C-section, postpartum hemorrhage, prematurity or stillbirth, NICU admission, extraction, severe pre-eclampsia, laceration, hyperemesis gravidarum, traumatic vaginal birth, fetal anomaly diagnosis or pregnancy, witnessing partner’s birth experience, long labor process, failed pain medication or poor response to anesthesia. 

The reported prevalence of PTSD due to birth trauma is 3% in community samples and 16% in high risk samples (PSI; Grekin & O’Hara, 2014). Up to 45% of women report their births as traumatic (PSI). According to Cheryl Beck, “During childbirth, the birthing person may experience intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and horror.” (Beck et al, 2013; Beck 2004. PSI). 

pawel czerwinski

Common themes and experiences of traumatic birth include: a perceived lack of caring from staff and support persons; feeling abandoned and stripped of dignity; birthing person feeling invisible, powerless and betrayed; poor communication; the birthing person will often wonder, “Does a healthy baby justify the trauma I endured?” (Beck, 2004) (PSI).

Since the pandemic started, additional themes and issues have developed: having older children at home; partner not allowed at delivery; limited prenatal care; birth doula’s not permitted at delivery; enforced isolation in hospital room; NICU visitation restrictions; older children at home during post-partum period; limited to no support at home from extended family, nanny, friends and inability to host visitors and share new baby with loved ones (PSI, 2021). 

It is important to consider, and be mindful of, the following potential consequences of traumatic birth. Per PSI, avoidance of postpartum care, impaired parental-infant bonding, PTSD in partner who witnessed birth, sexual dysfunction, avoidance of further pregnancies, elective C-section in future pregnancies, difficulties with breastfeeding, yearly anniversary of traumatic birth. 

As with anything perinatal related, you are not alone and help is available. Talk to a trusted loved one or trusted medical professional.  Helpful resources include: the Birth Trauma Association, “Traumatic Childbirth” by Cheryl Beck (2013), PSI. Find or work with your therapist on grounding techniques, mindfulness and CBT tools, engaging your support network and building relationships and establishing habits around daily physical movement. 

Leave a Reply