Understanding a Traumatic Birth Experience

By: Marissa Sherov, LCSW, Director of Mental Health Services, Maternal Mental Health Specialist

Birth trauma is a term used to describe the emotional, psychological, and potentially physical effects of a stressful and scary birth experience.  Both the mother and partner can be affected by a traumatic birth.  Up to 34 percent of women report symptoms of trauma following childbirth in the U.S. (Soet J, Brack G, DiIorio C. Prevalence and predictors of women’s experience of psychological trauma during childbirth. Birth 2003;30:36-46).  Stressful childbirth events have been found to contribute to poor maternal mental health and have been associated with symptoms of postpartum depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Birth can be traumatic if there is a disconnect between the expectations of what might happen and what actually does happen during the birth.  Birth trauma is often experienced by moms and dads who report intense feelings of fear and loss of control during the labor and delivery process.  Much more research needs to be done in the area of birth trauma but some of the factors that may make birth trauma more likely are:

  • Lengthy labor or short and very painful labor
  • Induction
  • Poor pain relief
  • Feelings of loss of control
  • High levels of medical intervention
  • Forceps birth
  • Emergency caesarean section
  • Impersonal medication treatment
  • Not being listened to
  • Lack of informed consent
  • Lack of privacy and dignity
  • Fear for baby’s safety
  • Stillbirth
  • Baby born with disability as a result of birth complication
  • Baby in NICU
  • Poor postpartum care
  • Previous trauma

The psychological and emotional symptoms of Birth Trauma are:

  • Re-experiencing the traumatic events through flashbacks or nightmares
  • Feeling jumpy, hypervigilant, or anxious (this may include intrusive thoughts or scary thoughts related to the safety of baby)
  • Finding it hard to remember parts of the birth
  • Finding it difficult to bond with baby
  • Feeling depressed, irritable, or angry
  • Difficulty concentrating

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above and suspect you may be suffering from the effects of a traumatic birth or Postpartum Depression, Anxiety, OCD, PTSD, or other mood disorder, please know that you did not do anything to cause this.  Be kind and gentle with yourself.  You are not alone.  1 in 7 moms suffer with their mental health in the postpartum period.  Maternal Mental Health Specialists are trained in helping moms and dads process the traumatic experience.  They can help you learn more effective ways to cope so you can calm your anxious minds, feel more grounded, and be more present in your life. 

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