Birth Trauma and PTSD


“Giving birth will be the most magical day of your life”, except when it’s really, really not. Let’s talk about Birth Trauma and PTSD.

When women undergo unexpected stress or trauma during childbirth, the after-effects can linger. Birth Trauma is the short-hand way of describing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that occurs after giving birth. 

PTSD is often associated with soldiers returning from war. Because of this association, women often find it surreal that they should feel this way after giving birth. We’re told that giving birth will be the most magical experience of our lives, and that we should feel privileged to go through it. 

Of course, none of us take our children for granted. Quite the opposite actually. Birth Trauma usually occurs after women have feared that they or their baby might not live. Women who have had Birth Trauma are also warriors at war, fighting for everything they have.

Feeling guilty about your start to motherhood

The double-edged sword of Birth Trauma is that women often feel guilty about it. We’re told that having a baby is a miraculous thing. We know that having a baby isn’t a given right. Surely then, the gift of your baby should be enough to compensate for the traumatic birth? ...Not at all.

Let’s think about soldiers. They set out to win a war, but winning the war doesn’t erase the battle. PTSD is so prevalent amongst veterans because the battle stays with them, even in peacetime. 

Mums who are dealing with trauma, hear us: You are not strange. You do not have to feel guilty. You are having a normal response to something that happened to you.

There’s four main symptoms of Birth Trauma:

  1. Re-experiencing the traumatic event. This might happen through flashbacks, nightmares or intrusive memories. You might feel panicked by these thoughts, that’s normal too.
  2. Avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma. This might take the form of avoiding other women with new babies or things you associate with the birth, like the hospital. 
  3. Feeling constantly alert. You might feel hypervigilant, and irritable or jumpy. You may worry that something terrible is going to happen to your baby.
  4. Feeling low. You might be showing common signs of unhappiness, such as feeling guilty and blaming yourself for your traumatic birth. You might also be blocking out some memories of the birth.

What’s the difference between birth trauma and postnatal depression?

Postnatal Depression (PND) and Birth Trauma share some similar symptoms. However, they are different illnesses and need their own specific treatment.

Unfortunately, Birth Trauma is often misdiagnosed as PND. This means that women are prescribed medication that doesn’t help them. In this situation, we advise mums to go back to their doctor and explain that symptoms aren’t wavering, or are still troubling you. Ask them about Birth Trauma, especially if you have suffered from a difficult birth.

However, sometimes PND can go hand in hand with Birth Trauma, in which case, anti-depressants may be appropriate treatment. We recommend speaking to your GP or health provider about all your symptoms. It’s important they understand everything you’re dealing with.

Seek help with Birth Trauma

There’s light at the end of the tunnel, we promise. Several treatments can help relieve these difficult symptoms.

  1. Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): CBT is a common treatment for those dealing with difficult mental health issues. Trauma-focused CBT is specifically designed to treat PTSD. Your GP will be able to organise this for you, or put you in touch with the right support.
  2. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): There’s a mouthful! This treatment involves guided sessions in which a therapist will ask you to make rhythmic eye movements while recalling the traumatic event. The movements aim to stimulate the information-processing system in the brain. This treatment encourages you to process the event and recover from it.

Medication is not normally offered to treat Birth Trauma. However, it’s common to experience anxiety and depression alongside it. Your doctor might offer you medication to ease these symptoms. Or, if there’s a bit of a wait for other treatment, they may also offer you medication to help you manage day to day life in the meantime.

Go easy on yourself

Be kind to yourself during this time and take care of your mind and body as best you can. Practicing calming breathing techniques and mindfulness can ease symptoms of stress and anxiety, and help bring you back to the current moment. Headspace is a great tool for practicing these techniques.

Give yourself time to recover. Don’t beat yourself up if your recovery needs a bit more time. Your happiness and wellbeing is a long-term goal, so it’s okay to play the long game. 

Some helpful resources:

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