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Birth, its suppose to be a happy, joyous, wonderful time. However for many women and their partners, birth can be a traumatic event, that can change them and their lives.

So what is birth trauma?

Birth trauma is in the eye of the beholder”(Cheryl Beck)

What is traumatic to one woman may not be traumatic to another. Each woman’s experience of birth is unique to her. Many things can add to a woman feeling her birth was traumatic. For some it may be that her birth was a scary event, she may have been in an emergency situation where her life and that of her baby was at risk. Maybe her labour was very lengthy and very painful and she found it difficult to cope. It may be that a woman’s birth had high levels of medical intervention, such as induction, caesarean section, episiotomy, or other medical issues. It may be that a woman gives birth early and her pre-term baby requires care in NICU. Sadly some women have a birth that results in damage to herself or injury to her baby. Some sadly lose their babies at birth.

For other women trauma can result from the way she is looked after by the staff responsible for her care, both during the birth of her baby but also postnatal. She may feel a loss of control, dignity and privacy. There may have been a lack of information or a woman may feel she wasn’t listened to and her choices not respected or they were overlooked. She may feel she had medical procedures done without her consent or without proper explanation or that she was left with no choice. Or maybe unkind, cruel words and actions made her feel vulnerable and exposed.

Some women find birth triggers, or adds to, previous trauma such as rape or sexual, domestic, abuse.

Often women who feel traumatised from their birth experience will feel isolated, others may not understand why she feels traumatised.  A woman can feel guilty and somehow ‘weaker’ than other women for being unable to ‘cope’ with her feelings about her birth experience . She may feel she should just ‘get over’ the birth and often well meaning friends and family will say things such as “at least you are ok and you have a healthy baby”. This only confounds the woman’s feelings and makes her feel more isolated.

Birth Trauma can damage relationships with partners, family members and friends as a woman feels no one understands and so she withdraws deeper into the trauma. Depending on the nature of the trauma a woman may feel unable to have further medical tests such as smear tests. Sex may also be affected, as a woman may fear further pregnancies, or even just the act of physical intimacy itself, especially if she has experienced physical difficulties from medical procedures such as an episiotomy. Many women who suffer birth trauma may struggle to bond with their baby, others become overly anxious of their babies health and wellbeing and constantly worry about every aspect of caring for their newborn. For others it maybe that they disassociate from everything and everyone around them in order to cope with the experience and its aftermath, including their baby.

For a woman that has lost a baby during birth or whose baby has been injured during birth she may experience overwhelming guilt, she may feel like it is her fault, that she somehow failed her baby or that she should somehow have prevented it. She may play over and over again the birth in her head seeking answers or ways she could have changed the outcome.

Feeling like they have no voice, are misunderstood and weak many women will seek to hide their true suffering and ‘carry on’, the weight of trauma bearing down on them crushing hope, light and happiness as they try desperately to cling to normality. Everyday tasks become hard and just coping day to day can feel overwhelming. Their physical health too may suffer as the effects of trauma ravage them mentally. Lack of sleep, trouble eating and the constant struggle all takes its toll. Flashbacks may take them back to the event reliving moments, even smells and conversations causing great distress and anxiety. The result may be Perinatal PTSD.

What can a woman who has experienced birth trauma do to find help and support?

  • Speak to someone, partner, family, friends, midwife, health visitor, GP. Don’t suffer in silence.
  • Remember you are not alone, there are others too that have been affected by birth trauma.
  • Remember you are not to blame.
  • Look after yourself, make sure you rest and eat a good balanced diet. Do things, activities that help you to relax.
  • Know your limitations and what you can do both physically and emotionally.
  • Speak to your hospital about your experience. Some women ask to see their medical notes and request a debrief to discuss exactly what happened to them and why.
  • Seek help and treatments to help you process what has happened and put you on the road to recovery.
  • Find local support groups or support groups on social media (such as Birth Trauma Association support page, Unfold Your Wings facebook page and Birth Trauma Trust)

Birth trauma is real and it is important that women get the help and support they need to overcome it. The birth of her baby can affect a woman and her partner for the rest of their lives, it may not be possible to completely prevent birth trauma but it is possible with the right help and support to recover from this most darkest of times so that that it is possible to find the light again.

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