Birth trauma can mean a lot of things, but if you’re a mother whose delivery day was full of stress, dangers, bad news and other complicating factors, you may have experienced it firsthand.
We’re here to help you learn more about this condition, from the causes and signs of birth trauma to ways of dealing with birth-based PTSD, if need be.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s take this back to day zero to understand how birth trauma happens.
If you’ve struggled to find materials to better understand birth trauma, there’s a reason for it.
The definition of birth trauma is fuzzy, and there are actually three overlapping conditions that can sometimes wear this nametag:
Physical trauma experienced by the child
Physical trauma experienced by the mother
Mental and psychological trauma experienced by the mother
The first is birth trauma for the neonate themselves — the baby. Birth trauma may describe injuries sustained during the childbirth process, which can include clavicular fractures and other bone fractures.
But tiny baby bones that fracture during delivery are just one of the worries. Other problems include birth defects, which develop in utero prior to delivery. Damage during delivery can be pretty severe — and that doesn’t stop at the child.
The second birth trauma category includes injuries and other physical damage that a mom sustains while giving birth — literal physical trauma. We can add dozens of specifics to this subcategory, as every mom has her own unique set of battle scars from vaginal deliveries, breech delivery or cesarean delivery.
And while some complications are certainly more serious than others, any “complication” most certainly results in some physical trauma.
The third category, however, is the mental and psychological traumas sometimes experienced by a mother while giving birth. These may be associated with physical traumas, but they aren’t always.
Sometimes, in fact, birth trauma can be a result of how you’re left feeling after delivery — and those wounds can very much exist only in your mind.
The resulting symptoms — which can include intrusive thoughts about the trauma, flashbacks, nightmares and avoidant behaviors — become stuck in a fight or flight response and can even result in things like guilt and self-blame.
Birth trauma, sometimes defined as any distress or disturbance to the birthing mother during pregnancy, is a trauma experienced by mothers during or immediately after giving birth.
As experienced by a mother, birth trauma doesn’t always respect the medical community’s definitions of a “smooth delivery.” Many women — almost 45 percent of them — say they’ve experienced birth trauma during the delivery of one or more of their children.
It occurs in higher frequencies when certain things happen. It might be the result of any of the following:
C-sections (emergency or otherwise)
Poor bedside manner of health care professionals
Heart failure or resuscitation at birth
Extreme pain during labor
Unexpected disabilities in the newborn
Early or unexpected delivery
Significant blood loss during birth
These are just a few examples of what can result in birth trauma — and remember, there doesn’t need to be a complication for a mother to feel traumatized by the experience of going into labor. That’s a major problem, too, since birth trauma can cause other issues.
Trauma, for the record, is an emotional response to an event where something bad happens — violence, danger, perceived danger or a near-death experience. You can experience several types of trauma, and your trauma can result from experiencing a traumatic event or watching someone else experience one.
And each person’s response can be complex and unique.
This birth trauma can lead to PTSD and other mental health issues.
Research shows that a mother who experiences birth trauma is four to five times more likely to experience postpartum depression, and that between four and six percent of mothers who experience it will go on to develop PTSD as a result.
For context, the easiest way to understand the difference between trauma and PTSD is the difference in duration and intensity of symptoms.
PTSD is what happens when the trauma continues to recur in the mind of the person, in the form of things like flashbacks and uncontrollable feelings that make it seem like it’s happening all over again. This reliving of the traumatic event affects your ability to function normally in day-to-day activity and responsibilities.
Research also shows birth trauma can become birth PTSD.
A 2021 study looked at PTSD in new moms and found significant risk for the disorder came from things like emergency childbirth, but also from past traumatic experiences like sexual abuse or other psychological trauma-inducing events.
What that means is that even if you have a relatively smooth delivery, your risk of a traumatic birth experience is not zero.
The best way to avoid other mental health disorders is to treat new mothers with respect and offer them support regardless of whether they have a “reason” to feel traumatized.
Psychology Today advises that women who suspect they may have experienced birth trauma do one thing in particular: allow themselves to call the event a trauma.
Once you’ve validated your experience, it’s time to seek support and treatment. Consult with a mental health professional, reach out to social circles and community, tell your story and most of all have compassion for yourself.
Theoretically, if signs are detected that the mother-to-be has previously experienced trauma, then treatment for birth trauma can actually be started before delivery has even occurred. But that requires substantial improvements to the education of the healthcare provider community, birth coaches and other pregnancy-related professionals.
In the meantime — and for women who have already experienced a traumatic birth — avoiding the sense that something may be wrong is not a strategy. Avoidance only allows symptoms of trauma and PTSD to begin to flourish and take hold — and that includes denying that something was traumatic in the first place.
After that, therapeutic interventions are your best option if symptoms are present.
There’s no official recommendation of how to treat birth trauma from resources like the National Institutes of Health, but for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s generally agreed that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help patients deal with the symptoms of reliving or experiencing intrusive thoughts about the trauma.
Psychotherapy for birth trauma however might take the form of exposure therapy (which is a specific type of CBT), desensitization therapy and other forms associated with the treatment of PTSD.
Likewise, medications, including antidepressants — specifically, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors — may be effective for treating symptoms, but women who are currently breastfeeding should have a discussion with their healthcare provider before starting a course of antidepressant medication.
Mothers respond to birth trauma differently. Each will exhibit their own signs of birth trauma (and PTSD if it evolves), so finding the right mental health professional to support you and help work through those symptoms is key to your success.
Healing from trauma of any kind is about validation, support and love, and that goes doubly for birth trauma. You need all of those things — you deserve all of those things — to overcome the experience.
Getting what you deserve may be more difficult than it should be, though, which is why getting your treatment off on the right foot is so important.
Hers’ online therapy platform is a great option if you’re not sure where to start. You can connect with mental health professionals and receive treatment from anywhere with WiFi (which is a great option for a mom with responsibilities to tend to).
Remember: being a mom is an incredible and rewarding experience, but we don’t always get there without struggles. And we don’t get anywhere without addressing them.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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