Birth Trauma Occurs When Parent And Child Are (Or Feel) Unsafe
As therapists who work with both pregnant patients and new parents, we know that feeling scared of the unknown during birth and labor is normal. However, birth trauma can occur when this experience goes from being an expected level of anticipatory fear to the mother and/or child being (or feeling) unsafe. With birth trauma or labor trauma, something didn’t just happen that wasn’t planned for; it went wrong.
In our therapy practice, we see patients who are dealing with birth trauma for a whole lot of different reasons, including an emergency C-section, a lengthy labor, insufficient pain relief, loss of control, heavy medical interventions or poor interpersonal treatment by the staff at the hospital. You might be traumatized by the way you came into the hospital or what happened around the labor. You may also feel as though you weren’t being listened to–you were afraid for your baby’s safety and this was exacerbated by a lack of communication by the staff. Maybe you had a stillbirth or your infant died. Or maybe you still have to visit your new baby in the NICU. Birth trauma can also occur when you’re stuck somewhere or with someone during labor that was not ideal and was unsafe.
No matter the specific story, with birth trauma, both parent and baby were or felt like they were in danger or at risk. While the baby may have survived (and it’s important we acknowledge he or she may have not), the experience can have lasting effects.
Acknowledging The Pain: Birth Trauma Is A Form Of PTSD
While your traumatic experience may (or may not) be technically over, you can still feel the aftereffects of trauma physically and emotionally. You might experience flashbacks to the traumatic event. Or you might feel hypervigilant, sad, worried or have heightened anxiety. Some patients we see in our therapy practice have trouble sleeping or relaxing, fearing that something will happen to them, their partner or their baby. Others feel triggered by being touched, having sex or have trouble connecting with their baby.
Birth trauma is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, PTSD is generally not talked about as a part of postpartum issues as frequently as postpartum depression (PPD) or postpartum anxiety (PPA). While postpartum depression is regularly screened for, obstetricians and doctors post-birth don’t generally ask their patients about flashbacks or birth experiences. OBs and other doctors may also see a new mom’s postpartum symptoms as PPD or PPA rather than birth trauma. Similarly, someone who experienced a traumatic birth may not have shared with their OB that what happened during labor wasn’t okay. A new mom may not even realize how not okay she is–she may not feel like herself, but also not be able to name why.
Birth Trauma Can Be Isolating: Moms, It’s Okay To Ask For Help
Smart and savvy moms do so much on their own and sometimes the impulse is to also endure the hard stuff alone because they know they can or have done it before. A lot of new moms, at the six-week appointment, feel pressure to be seen as having it all together and pulling their maternity leave/time off effortlessly. But, if you are having flashbacks, not sleeping because of anxiety or fear the baby might stop breathing, it is not the time to go it alone. You might be smart and savvy, but you still need help.
In our therapy for birth and labor trauma, we often see unease in new moms. They may know something went wrong in the birthing process, but don’t want to think about it. Similarly, they might be ruminating on their traumatic experience without letting anyone else in, devoting their attention to the needs of their new baby. However, their lives were at risk and it can feel scary and isolating. Moms often need to be told, “You need to slow down. It’s okay to talk this through and ask for help.”
Asking for help can mean reaching out to the people around you, whether your mom, a friend, your partner, a doctor or a therapist. Say, “I can’t go it alone. It’s above pay grade or my abilities right now.” Ask for support hiring someone like a therapist or call in help from a friend who can sit with you and acknowledge that what you experienced wasn’t okay. For example, tell your partner, “I’m not okay. I can’t shake this. Is there someone I can see today or this week who can talk with me?” Or say to your doctor, “No, this isn’t postpartum depression. I can’t shake my labor experience/the loss of the baby/the NICU. Can you refer me to a therapist to get help?”
Sharing Your Traumatic Birth or Labor Story In Therapy
Sharing your birth trauma experience is especially important. There is a normal labor and birth story, which goes something like, “It was hard, but I got through it.” Then, there is the traumatic birth story in which X went wrong (or still may be going wrong) and you might need help wrapping your head around it. Maybe your baby has a long road to recovery or your body isn’t going to take the average six to eight weeks to heal. Maybe your body is trying to adjust to the sleepless nights with a healthy newborn, but you still don’t feel safe.
As therapists who deal with birth trauma, we let new parents know it’s safe to slow down and talk about their traumatic birthing process. This is especially critical because safety was taken away during labor or birth. We help unpack what happened during pregnancy, labor and delivery, and post-delivery, as well as how it became a trauma to you.
Not only do we talk about what happened, but we also help you re-engage with the experience/ trauma with more agency, care and power. It also helps to have a partner (i.e. a therapist) come with you on this journey. Connecting with a therapist who is outside of the initial traumatic experience helps you reframe and reconnect in a new way. Moms and couples often need someone outside the family system to say, “Hey, that wasn’t okay,” or “Yes, that really happened and it was scary. Let’s acknowledge that and stick with the pain before we ask you to function at high levels again.”
Birth Trauma Can Affect You Physically and Emotionally: Therapy Can Help Reconnect Your Body And Mind
Birth trauma can affect you both physically and emotionally. You can feel alternately very connected and disconnected with your body because of the out-of-control situation that happened to you and your baby. Talking about your body and what you went through is a big part of working through trauma in therapy, especially related to the birthing process, because often your physical safety was threatened. Admitting, “I almost died,” “I nearly lost my baby,” “I thought we both weren’t going to make it,” or “I didn’t know what was happening and this is how my body feels” allows you to not hide that this traumatic experience happened. The trauma was real, as was the physical and emotional pain.
In our therapy for birth trauma, we also help find ways for you to reclaim your body after this traumatic experience. For instance, a lot of new moms find strength in combining talk therapy with restorative/trauma-centered yoga. In therapy, specifically, we have a wide range of approaches, from body and behavioral therapy to grounding, that can be useful in slowing down the mind and creating connections with the body in which you are in charge.
Especially down the road, a particularly important part of reconnecting with your body that often goes under-acknowledged is being ready to be touched again, whether by your partner, your friends, your baby or doctors examining you. Rather than flinching when touched, we want to help you get to a place to be able to ask for it and embrace it. As therapists who work with trauma, we know this process is crucial and often under-appreciated. Since your body was in a position of being unsafe, we have to create safety for your body again, which is an emotional process.
Is Therapy For Birth Trauma Short-Term or Long-Term?
Either, depending on your needs. In the short-term, therapy will support you to organize in a crisis, helping you feel more stable. We name and acknowledge the trauma and if you lost a baby at birth, we get you through the loss, trauma and talk about working through the crisis. Short-term therapy may not look like mindful body work, but more like calling in all the supports such as your mom, sibling(s), partner or friends to help you heal. We will set up follow-up sessions or do deeper psychotherapy work when ready.
Once the daily crisis is over, creating a long-term therapy plan is when the deeper psychotherapy comes in. We look at past traumas, your birth trauma and your family dynamics and history. We also help you set up a continued care plan, whether it is combining yoga with therapy, continuing psychotherapy or connecting you with a community of survivors of birth trauma. Maybe your continued care means asking family to step up in particular ways or not going back to work for a bit, while you just get to be a mom rather than a mom in trauma mode. We will help you find out what is next after we get you through the initial traumatic crisis.