Birth trauma: when birth doesn't go by the book

Preparing to welcome a new baby to the family can be one of the most exciting, and nervous times of a parent’s life. Most new parents spend hours decorating the nursery, compiling lists of names and buying teensy tiny clothes. They may also spend a lot of time preparing to give birth. 

No matter whether it’s your first, or your fifth birth, it will be a different experience each time. Some women spend hours (and days!) in labour, others have a C-section and some mums have a quick labour. 

Either way, we can all agree that giving birth can be intense, emotional and there’s usually a healthy dose of trepidation that comes with it. And unfortunately sometimes, trauma.

Birth trauma

When we think ‘birth trauma’, we commonly think about a very dramatic birth, where there are serious complications, or the baby is at risk. However, trauma can occur in many different forms, and in birth, it can happen even if everything else is relatively straightforward. 

Some parents-to-be (possibly up to 1 in 3), may find the birthing process traumatic. While most go on to process this, for others, it can escalate into postnatal depression (PND), anxiety and sometimes even postnatal post-traumatic stress disorder (PPTSD). With the serious risks that PND and anxiety can pose for new parents, and babies, it’s important to be vigilant with how parents process the birth of their new bub.

Lucy* was due to have her second child, and felt relatively prepared for the birth. What she wasn’t prepared for however was to end up with a 15 minute labour and birth. “I had thought labour with this baby would be similar to my first: seven hours. I'm not sure I had time to register what was happening or take note of how I was feeling” she recalls. Lucy’s waters were broken at 7:30am, and by 8am she told the midwife she thought she was having contractions, despite the midwife telling her she was not. By 8:15am Lucy’s little boy had arrived. 

Despite the speed of the delivery, the birth appeared to be straightforward on paper, with no real complications. However Lucy experienced real trauma, emotionally, physically and mentally as a result. “Honestly? I thought I was dying”, she explains, when recalling what went through her mind during such a fast labour. “I didn’t have time to prepare, there were no breaks”.

Because the labour was so fast, Lucy was having trouble remembering exactly what had happened during labour. The midwife on duty told Lucy that they would like to monitor her for postnatal depression (PND). “I told the midwife that I didn’t think I had the beginnings of PND, I was just having trouble remembering what happened. I thought I was ok.” 

However, Lucy wasn’t ok, and it was only when her son was 5 weeks old that she knew something wasn’t quite right. 

After experiencing flashbacks of the birth, and breaking down emotionally both at home and in front of her obstetrician, it was suggested that she see a psychologist. Lucy found seeing a psychologist really helped her accept the trauma of the birth and how to process it. 

“It was good to speak to an independent party. I could tell her exactly how I was feeling without filtering what I was saying or how I felt”. Together they worked through the birth, and put together a plan to deal with the emotions that accompanied the birth. “I was getting random flashbacks right up until I saw her. The day I spoke to her, they stopped. She put things into perspective and made me realise that although I didn't have a birth plan, this birth really didn't go to plan and that's ok.”
mother holding newborn in hospita

The importance of asking for help 

Lucy’s experience highlights the importance of seeking support when you need it, and understanding that trauma comes in many different shapes. 

Although Lucy knew that her baby was healthy, and she was fine too, until she could process her emotions about the fast birth, the trauma would remain, and this may have lead onto more serious and long-term difficulties. 

Lucy certainly could see this in herself. “If I hadn't talked to the psychologist, I believe I would have had a full breakdown. I wouldn't have been able to look after myself or my family. It would have snowballed and I wouldn't have been healthy at all”. 

Tips for help

If you think you, or someone you know has experienced trauma through birth, or is exhibiting symptoms such as flashbacks, feeling low, sad or emotionally numb, is anxious or excessively emotional, or no interest in activities they used to enjoy, here are some tips that might help:
  • Allow them the chance to talk, or write it all down. Listening to how they are feeling may help them to see where the ‘hot points’ in their story are. Those hot points are where the emotion becomes overwhelming. It’s about understanding their story, and helping them to re-write it, to see that they’ve come through.
  • Help them to get out and get some fresh air. Pop the baby in the pram and go for a walk together, and just focus on the here and now; the sun on your face, the trees nearby, the bumpy footpath (because there’s ALWAYS a bumpy footpath when you’ve got a pram and a baby!)
  • Offer them a chance to rest. Just taking the baby off their hands even for 30 minutes can make the world of difference.
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