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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 share a sense of disappointment, anger or fear. And this may have happened to you. Despite your best efforts, your birth did not turn out the way you planned. You may be angry. And you may think about your birth—a lot.

Fortunately, 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 bad to outside observers, and yet mothers feel positive about them. Other mothers have births that appear perfect on paper, yet they are deeply troubled. Some births are 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 cesareans are usually negative, also not always the case.

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, he notes that an experience will be troubling to the extent that it is sudden, overwhelming and dangerous.

Let’s examine these in relation to birth:

  • Sudden: Did things happen quickly? Did your birth change from “fine” too 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 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 cesarean 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.

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 want you to.

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 he or she usually counts on for support. Instead of offering support, these people either ignore or dismiss the issue, further contributing to a victim’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.

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

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—baby 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 stories, we see some classic symptoms of a posttraumatic stress response:

  • the fear of dying
  • the re-experiencing of her birth
  • the sleeplessness.

She did eventually come to a place of peace over her experiences, but the memories of those two births have remained vivid.

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.

Here are some things that other mothers have found helpful:

1) Process your experience

You may find it helpful to contact one of the support organizations 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, and they’re not imagining this effect. 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 her. 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) Breastfeed

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 to 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) Resist making 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!

10) Recognize that birth is only the beginning of a life long 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

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Seeing your baby for the first time is an amazing experience for any parent. For most parents, the months preceding this meeting were probably spent imagining what the baby was experiencing inside the womb, trying to paint a realistic picture on top of that two-dimensional black and white ultrasound photo.

But thanks to Brazillian birth photographer Janaina Oliveira and a baby boy named Noah, parents around the world are now better able to imagine what their baby's world looked like between the ultrasound picture and their first breath.

While most babies are born without their amniotic sac intact, Noah entered the world (via C-section), still cocooned inside his. This is known as an en caul birth, and while it wasn't the first Oliveira has captured through her lens, it is likely now the most famous of her photographs.

After she posted Noah's birth photos to Instagram, Oliveira's photos went viral, making headlines around the world.

This slideshow is amazing.

In a Facebook post, Noah's mom Monyck Valasco explains that she had a tough pregnancy with Noah, and is so grateful that he did not arrive too early.

Noah is now something of a celebrity in his hometown of Vila Velha, Brazil, but local media reports he was actually one of three en caul babies born at the Praia da Costa Hospital in just one month. Birth photographer Janaina Oliveira actually captured all three en caul births on camera. Little Matais arrived before Noah, and baby Laura came afterward, both en caul.

These photographs are as breathtaking as the babies featured in them and remind mothers around the world that our bodies were once someone's whole world. And now they are ours.

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Alexis Ohanian has made a lot of important decisions in his life. The decision to co-found Reddit is a pretty big one. So was marrying Serena Williams. But right up there with changing internet culture and making a commitment to his partner, the venture capitalist lists taking time off after his daughter's birth as a significant, life-changing choice.

"My understanding of showing up and being present for my wife was taken to a whole new level when Olympia was born. I was able to take 16 weeks of paid leave from Reddit, and it was one of the most important decisions I've made," Ohanian says in an essay for Glamour.

A nearly four-month parental leave is something too few American mothers, let alone fathers, get to take. Even when fathers work for companies that offer generous parental leave packages, they often don't use the benefit for fear of being sidelined or seen as uncommitted. A recent survey by Talking Talent found fathers typically use only 32% of the time available to them.

In his essay, Ohanian recognizes that he is privileged in a way most parents aren't.

"It helped that I was a founder and didn't have to worry about what people might say about my 'commitment' to the company, but it was incredible to be able to spend quality time with Olympia. And it was perhaps even more meaningful to be there for my wife and to adjust to this new life we created together—especially after all the complications she had during and after the birth," he explains.

(The GOAT's husband is making the same points that we at Motherly make all the time.)

He continues: "There is a lot of research about the benefits of taking leave, not only for the cognitive and emotional development of the child but for the couple. However, many fathers in this country are not afforded the privilege of parental leave. And even when they are, there is often a stigma that prevents them from doing so. I see taking leave as one of the most fundamental ways to 'show up' for your partner and your family, and I cherished all 16 weeks I was able to take."

👏👏👏

By first taking his leave and then speaking out about the ways in which it benefited his family, Ohanian is using his privileged position to de-stigmatize fathers taking leave, and advocate for more robust parental leave policies for all parents, and his influence doesn't end there. He's trying to show the world that parents shouldn't have to cut off the parent part of themselves in order to be successful in their careers.

He says that when his parental leave finished he transitioned from being a full-time dad to a "business dad."


"I'm fortunate to be my own boss, which comes with the freedoms of doing things like bringing my daughter into the office, or working remotely from virtually anywhere Serena competes. My partners at Initialized are used to seeing Olympia jump on camera—along with her doll Qai Qai—or hearing her babbling on a call. I tell them with pride, 'Olympia's at work today!' And I'll post some photos on Instagram or Twitter so my followers can see it too," Ohanian explains.

"The more we normalize this, on social media and in real life, the better, because I know this kind of dynamic makes a lot of men uncomfortable (and selfishly I want Olympia to hear me talking about start-ups!)," he says.

This is the future of family-friendly work culture. Take it from a guy who created an entire internet culture.

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Trigger warning: Some of these responses describe a women's experiences with child loss.

Anxiety is one of those concepts you can never truly grasp until you face it yourself. And, each person's anxiety can announce itself in different ways—for some, it's postpartum anger, while for others, it's an overwhelming feeling of worry about a pregnancy. This can be especially prevalent if you're at high risk, concerned about telling your boss or undergoing medical issues. If you suffer from anxiety, know you're not alone in this mama. In fact, women are twice as likely to develop an anxiety disorder than men.

These mamas shared how they manage and cope with their anxiety on Chairman Mom:

1. Hypnobirthing class

"I took a hynobirthing class at a nearby parents resource center—it was phenomenal. The class changed my emotional forecast for both the pregnancy and delivery. I uncovered a calm existence that lived dormant inside a very anxious body. For quick help at my fingertips, I love the Headspace app. My favorite quote pops up on the screen before I tap to complete a meditation 'Rather than the mind leading the breath, allow the breath to lead the mind. Keep glowing!'" —Jenny

2. Journaling

"It took my husband and I three years to have our IVF miracle baby after a devastating miscarriage last summer. I was wracked with anxiety for the entire duration of my pregnancy and it got worse as I got closer to his due date. The one thing that helped me was to journal. I wrote to the baby constantly about every step of the process and was very raw and real about the emotions I was experiencing each step of the way."—Anonymous

3. Set some ground rules

"[While I was on strict bedrest for 10 weeks] I tried to set ground rules for myself—I 'indulged' in worst case scenario/message board/Googling for exactly 30 minutes each day, and had to fill the rest of the bedrest time with other positive activities. I controlled for the factors I could, and just tried to chill out about everything else. Easier said than done, but I forced myself to breath deeply and try to limit the physical effects of my anxiety."—Milo

4. Therapy

"I feel like this could be my answer for many questions, but I say get to therapy. Anxiety can be a normal part of parenthood and it's a good idea to take the time before baby comes to build your tool kit and to feel like, even though it is full of unknowns, you have prepared your heart for the wild ride that is motherhood. I am an anxious person by nature, a worrier, a big feeler— learning that this is okay and that I can use it to my advantage has been empowering beyond measure. You are not alone and you will get through this. Hugs to you. If you are an "action person" and can't/won't get into therapy right now, this workbook has a lot of good, practical exercises."—Stratton

5. Reading this book

"I found a book called Finding Calm for the Expectant Mom useful. The major anxiety reducer for me during pregnancy was walking, because it was the only time I didn't feel sick early on and then later it was the only time the baby wasn't kicking me (which is supremely comforting and yet not). I found going with a mid-wife rather than a doctor helped alleviate a lot of anxiety. In Ontario (Canada) this is covered by OHIP (provincial health insurance). Midwives have way more time and patience. All appointments are booked for 30 minutes, so you never feel rushed."—Sian

6. Find a super knowledgeable OB

"I'm currently pregnant (second trimester) with two complications one of which can cause stillbirth. I found the best way to reduce anxiety was finding a super knowledgeable OB that I could talk to about treatments and milestones. Ask them about what kind of monitoring they'll do for you in the third trimester (NST/BPPs). Talk about contingency plans. I also found a doula that has been wonderful to talk with about the process of birth and the potential of NICU time and emergency c-sections (both not that uncommon with other women that have the same condition I do.) I whole heartedly recommend finding a therapist that you can talk with about your fears and anxieties. Look for ones who specialize in new moms. If there are any support groups for mamas with your high risk condition I also urge you to seek them out. Setting a limit for how much time you spend there is also extremely wise. And know that there are women who will experience loss in those groups. That doesn't mean you will." —Anonymous

7. Yoga, working out + meditation

"[After a miscarriage] what I've learned is that all that worrying didn't make a difference. It didn't make me feel any more prepared or okay once I lost the baby. And it limited how much I enjoyed those three months that I was pregnant. Next time I'm not going to read anything or Google anything or read any odds. I'm just going to take everyday as a gift. I know that's easier said than done. Yoga, working out, meditation. Being around people who don't know because then you can't talk about it or obsess about it. Warm baths, tea. Just be super super nice to yourself. Don't worry about what you should be eating or shouldn't be eating, etc."—Anonymous

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Having a new baby is incredibly hard. And beautiful and fulfilling and rewarding, of course—but definitely, definitely hard.

Especially the nights.

Watching the last rays of sunlight disappear would make my heart race. My 3-week-old baby didn't sleep for more than an hour and a half at a time and had zero regard for what time it was.

She was so tiny and helpless—and it was my responsibility to keep her safe and fed and healthy. For me, that was easier during the day. Because at night, it felt unfair knowing my husband and toddler were fast asleep a few rooms over.

The minute our newborn would wake, I would spring to action. Bottle, breast, pacing the floor, bouncing on an exercise ball, loud shushing into her tiny ear—I would do whatever it would take to get her to quiet down so she wouldn't wake the rest of the house.

The evenings also started to feel very isolating. It's hardly appropriate to call your mom or friend or sister at 1 a.m. when your baby starts spitting up a curdled milk mixture so hard it comes out of her nose. And even if I did call anyway, it wouldn't matter because they wouldn't answer because they'd be sleeping.

I was used to anticipating a lack of sleep each night, which was terrifying. I felt such dread knowing I would only get a collective two and a half hours of sleep before my toddler would wake up at 5:30 a.m, ready for his morning dance party.

Fear would strike me at night, too. An incapacitating, all-consuming fear that something might happen to my sweet baby girl while she was lying peacefully in her safe crib, in her baby-proofed nursery. I often wondered how I was even supposed to sleep with such intense worry on my mind.

I would stare for hours into the pitch black night, half of me thankful my baby was healthy, the other half of me terrified something would happen to her.

I'd feel irrational in the late hours of the night (or more likely, the wee, wee hours of the early morning) often reacting with full-on annoyance because as soon as she'd started to fall asleep I'd think, this is it—I can finally get some rest, only for her to wake up a few minutes later. I'd snap, "Seriously? All you do is eat!" at my tiny baby, which would automatically trigger intense guilt over what felt like such an uncontrolled emotional response.

"It gets better" and "sleep when the baby sleeps" are two sentiments I hope never to hear again in my life because—does it get better? Well, yes it does. Children don't usually turn into adults who only sleep for 90 minutes at a time. And sleeping when the baby sleeps sounds good in theory but it's impractical. Plus, neither statement helps at 3 a.m., TBH.

I went to extreme measures to quell my anxiety. I sent my husband to Walmart in the middle of a tropical depression to buy a rock 'n play. Then I sent him back when he returned with the version that didn't vibrate. I put a $300 Owlet monitor on a credit card. I used Amazon one-day shipping to obtain a copy of Dr. Harvey Karp's The Happiest Baby on the Block.

I eventually found there's no magic solution to aid in this season of parenting. It helps to find a community of women going through the same struggles. Prioritizing self-care and spending time connecting with your significant other are also healthy ways of dealing.

But I'm going to level with you—for the first three months of my baby's life, I didn't have time to seek out a support group, wash my hair or converse about one meaningful thing with my spouse.

I was in survival mode and the only thing that helped me was time passing and binge watching Downton Abbey.

And walks around the block. And coffee.

If you loved the newborn stage and came through it with fond memories—I applaud you.

If you gave it all you had and emerged on the other side with a baby who (mainly) sleeps through the night and is somewhat happy, most of the time—you deserve a standing ovation.

You managed to prevail in a time that required intense mental and physical stamina, and you nailed it. Great job, mama.

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