Every birth is unique—and for some, a birth experience can be deeply troubling and even cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
After giving birth, many women may be left with a sense of disappointment, anger or fear. This may have happened to you. Despite your best efforts, your birth may not have turned out the way you planned. You may be angry. And you may think about or ruminate on what went wrong with your child’s birth—a lot.
If you have had a troubling, difficult, or traumatic birth, there are some positive steps you can take.
What makes a birth experience difficult?
Some births seem really challenging to outside observers, and yet mothers feel positive about them. Other mothers have births that may appear perfect on paper, yet they are deeply troubled. Some births are harrowing or life-threatening and affect mothers for years.
There is an assumption underlying much of the research on birth experiences that vaginal deliveries are usually positive, which is not always the case, and that C-sections are usually negative, also not always the case.
Objective and subjective factors
So what determines how a mother will feel? Researchers have previously defined good and bad birth experiences in terms of objective characteristics:
- Length of labor
- Use of pain medications
- Medical interventions
- Type of delivery
When considering women’s reactions to their births, I have found it more useful to consider the subjective characteristics. Trauma psychologist Charles Figley describes these subjective aspects in his classic book, “Trauma and Its Wake.” In looking at the range of traumatic events, Figley notes that an experience will be troubling to the extent that it’s sudden, overwhelming and dangerous.
Let’s examine these in relation to birth:
- Sudden: Did things happen quickly? Did your birth change from “progressing” to dangerous in a short time? Did anyone have time to explain what was happening to you?
- Overwhelming: Did you feel swept away by the hospital routine? Were you physically restrained? Did you feel disconnected from what was happening? Did you have a general anesthetic?
- Dangerous: Was your delivery a medical emergency? Did you have failed anesthesia? Did you develop a life-threatening complication? Was the baby in danger? Did you think you or your baby would die?
These three aspects can occur in vaginal or C-section deliveries. In terms of understanding your reactions, the objective factors of your birth are less important than your subjective experience of it.
Some other risk factors for traumatic birth include your own history of depression, anxiety disorders or trauma. Having a preterm baby can also be frightening and can lead to a negative reaction.
How traumatic birth can impact your relationships
Not surprisingly, your birth experience can impact your relationships with other people. You might be angry or disappointed that people who were there to support you during labor weren’t able to protect you. When you try to talk about your experience, others may not be available for listening.
Not being able to talk about your birth can compound your negative feelings. In the research literature on psychological trauma, this is known as sanctuary trauma. Sanctuary trauma occurs when a person has experienced a traumatic event and turns to those whom they usually count on for support. Instead of offering support, these people either ignore or dismiss the issue, further contributing to a survivor’s sense of isolation and trauma.
Unfortunately, a difficult birth can also influence another important relationship: your relationship with your baby.
After your baby’s birth, you may have felt numb. Even weeks later, you may feel disconnected from your baby. This effect can be compounded if your baby had health problems and needed to stay in the hospital—away from you.
How traumatic birth can impact breastfeeding
Breastfeeding may have also gotten off to a very rough start. The stress of your birth may have delayed when your milk came in by several days. You may have needed to supplement your baby with formula to get through this time. And if breastfeeding didn’t work out, for whatever reason, you may have experienced this as another significant loss—or even failure.
In our study of 6,410 new mothers, women who had any type of birth intervention were less likely to be exclusively breastfeeding. However, even after a very difficult beginning, exclusive breastfeeding is possible.
Fear and pain stemming from birth trauma
Below, are two birth stories from a woman named Kathy. Each birth was difficult for different reasons. The subjective factors I described above are important themes in both stories. There is fear of dying, overwhelming pain and feeling trapped. There was also a replaying of events after these births.
When Peter was born, the birth itself was pain-free. He was small, especially his head and shoulders, and it truly didn’t hurt at all. I kept insisting I wasn’t really in labor up until two minutes before he was born when the doctor told me to lie down and push! He was born at 9:30, they told us he had Down syndrome at noon, and by 4 p.m., I was hemorrhaging so badly that I came within two minutes of death. I had to have an emergency D & C with no anesthesia and a big blood transfusion.
That night, they told us Peter needed immediate surgery and had to go to a hospital in another city. A very traumatic day, to say the least. And then they sent me home the next day with no mention at all that I might want to talk to somebody about any of this—the Down syndrome, the near-death experience, nothing.
I can still call up those memories with crystal clarity. And whenever we hear about another couple, I have to re-process those feelings. Interestingly, most of them relate to the hemorrhaging and D & C, not to the Down syndrome news. They’re all tied up together. Maybe it’s good to remind myself every so often of how precious life is.
My third birth was excruciatingly painful—Alex was 9 lb 3 ounces, with severe shoulder dystocia. I had some Stadol right before transition, but that’s all the pain relief I had. I thought I was going to die and lost all perspective on the fact that I was having a baby. I just tried to live through each contraction. I was flat on my back, with my feet up in stirrups, and watching the fetal monitor as I charted each contraction. I know now that if I had been squatting, or on my hands and knees, I probably could have gotten him out much easier.
That night, after Alex was born, I could not sleep at all because every time I tried to go to sleep, my brain would start re-running the tape of labor, and I would feel the pain and the fright and the fears of dying all over again. I stayed up all that night and the next day and didn’t sleep until I was home in my own bed.
In Kathy’s story, we see some classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress response:
- Fear of dying
- Re-experiencing of her birth
Kathy did eventually come to a place of peace around her experiences, but the memories of those two births have remained vivid.
On the road to recovery
If you had a difficult birth experience, you cannot change that. There are, however, a number of positive steps that you can take to help you resolve your experience and heal from it. Coming to terms with a negative birth experience is a process that can take months. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t happen overnight. You can overcome this.
9 tips on dealing with a traumatic birth
1. Process your experience
You may find it helpful to contact a birth trauma support organization to talk to someone who can validate your feelings and help you come to terms with your experience. Peer support, in person or online, can also be helpful. Some women find short-term therapy helpful.
Another option is to write about your experience. Some find that writing in a journal is very therapeutic: Researchers have found that writing can help you heal from trauma. If you’d like to try it, I’d encourage you to get the book, “Writing to Heal,” to get the most out of this activity.
2. Learn as much as you can about your experience
I always encourage mothers to get copies of their medical records. If possible, talk with your healthcare provider or someone else who can help you understand the events that occurred during your birth. It is also helpful to read books that might put your birth experience in a broader perspective. Reading will do much to validate your experience and help you understand it.
You may still be angry, or you may get angry for the first time, but eventually, the experience will not dominate your thoughts. If you plan to have another baby, the information you gain during this stage will make you a wiser consumer.
3. Give yourself time to get to know your baby
Your baby’s entry into the world was far from ideal. You may feel disconnected from them. Some mothers report that their baby doesn’t feel like their own. Fortunately, you can do something about this. Spend as much time as you can with your baby skin-to-skin, if it doesn’t feel too overwhelming. If skin-to-skin contact feels like too much, which can happen sometimes following trauma, ease into it gradually. You can get a lot of the same effects if you and your baby are lightly clothed.
You might also try infant massage. That can be a great way to get to know your baby and start to feel connected to each other. Babywearing is another helpful strategy.
4. Try breastfeeding
Following a traumatic birth, breastfeeding can also be difficult. Holding your baby skin-to-skin, or in light clothing, can also reactivate your baby’s feeding instincts and help your baby find and latch onto the breast, sometimes even weeks after birth. That reconnection can be healing for both of you. But mostly, you need to see that your baby prefers you to all others, even if, at the moment, you are having problems learning to breastfeed.
Get as much help and support as you can. Your stress hormone levels are likely high. Any activity you can do to bring them down will help. So accept all offers of household help. Relax as much as you can. Do things you enjoy. And spend as much time as you can with your baby. The two of you have been through a lot.
If your milk production is delayed by a few days, you may need to briefly supplement. This can be really disappointing. But remember, this is a short-term strategy to get breastfeeding back on track. Things really will get easier.
5. Realize your partner may have also been traumatized
A negative birth experience can create problems between you and your partner. Like you, your partner may have felt powerless and swept away by the experience. Your partner might feel guilty because he or she could not protect you, and they may react to their bad feelings by being angry with you.
Because of those negative feelings, your partner may be unable to offer you emotional support. In this case, the most effective thing you can do is be honest about your feelings with one another and try to find outside support together. If, however, your partner is not willing to work with you to resolve your birth experience, you must seek help alone.
6. Resist the temptation to rush into another pregnancy just to do it “right”
I often meet mothers who were unhappy with their birth experiences, who quickly become pregnant again in order to make it a better experience “this time.” You need some time in order to put your experience into perspective, get to know the baby you already have and physically recover. Adding another pregnancy to the equation makes things much more complicated and may not give you sufficient time to consider all of your options.
7. Try not to make hasty decisions about not becoming pregnant again
This is not the time to make a decision about permanent birth control. Some women make this decision only to regret it later. Understandably, you never want to repeat what you’ve been through. However, it is much better to make a deliberate decision rather than simply immediately reacting to a negative birth experience.
8. Make a conscious effort to forgive yourself
At first, you might balk at this suggestion: “I have nothing to forgive myself about.” If you still feel this way after you’ve thought about it, great! However, I’ve talked with many women who blame themselves and feel like they somehow failed. “If only I had been stronger…” “If only I had checked out the doctor/hospital more carefully…” “If only I had gone to a different prenatal class…”
The “if only’s” are endless. Recognize that you did the best you could under the circumstances and with the knowledge you had at the time, and let yourself off the hook!
9. Recognize that birth is only the beginning of a lifelong relationship with your baby
Motherhood is a role you gradually grow in to. A difficult beginning does not need to be the blueprint for the rest of your mothering career. It is important to realize that a negative birth experience can affect your relationship with your baby, but it does not have to. This is why it is vital for you to get the support you need as soon as possible.
I have seen mothers who have had difficult births try to make up for it by being supermom—to everyone’s detriment. It is difficult for anyone to be responsive and giving toward an infant or child when she is hurting inside.
In conclusion, I would encourage you to take good care of yourself and actively search for support. Many mothers and babies have overcome difficult beginnings. I am confident that you can, too.
Original article by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., IBCLC, FAPA. A version of this story was originally published on July 20, 2021. It has been updated.