What is birth trauma?
Birth trauma is essentially Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that can follow birth. The Birth Trauma Association estimates that over 200,000 women in the UK experience Birth Trauma and go on to develop some of the symptoms of PTSD annually.
My experience of overcoming birth trauma
I’ve previously blogged about my first birth with my son that ended in an emergency c-section. As a result of both the birth itself, combined with the way I was treated throughout, I suffered some birth trauma afterwards. This birth trauma was as much from the way my labour was handled by staff, as what actually happened.
I want to start out by saying I appreciate that my birth trauma was mild. Fortunately, I did not develop full blown PTSD or go on to develop postnatal depression, which many women who have severe birth trauma do. Also, my birth experience did not cause the death of my child or for him to suffer any disabilities. I have spoken to women who not only had the experiences I did but had a much worse end result. In those cases what I did isn’t going to cut it, you are going to have to speak to professionals too. Do not take it lightly, get support and lots of it.
How I felt during my birth trauma
In the weeks following the birth I would ‘re-live’ my birth in flashbacks and nightmares where I would remember the fear and loss of control that I felt. In the months following my first birth, I would at times be overcome by sadness and be in floods of tears. I was full of regret and felt like a complete and utter failure. I felt broken as a woman and had feelings of both shame and grief. It damaged my self esteem.
Whilst rationally I knew I shouldn’t feel this way, I did feel that I had ‘failed at birth’ very strongly. I mourned the loss of seeing my son be born – on missing out on that experience. I would randomly burst into tears if I thought about it or tried to talk about it. So did my mam and partner for a while too actually. If I saw birth on tv shows I would be full of grief and cry hysterically.
I thought I was over it but then it came to a head, one day nearly a year after my experience. Someone close to me had (what to me seemed like) a great birth experience and I completely broke down and sobbed hysterically all day. I can’t actually recall a time that I have cried more uncontrollably than that. Whilst I was really happy for them and genuinely wanted that outcome for them, I also wanted that outcome for myself and I was heartbroken that I was denied it.
Well-meaning people will tell you ‘at least you had a healthy baby’ which is of course true but when people say that in essence what they are also saying is your feelings, your experience doesn’t matter. That you should stop complaining and be grateful. But both matter. I can see why people say it but it kind of goes without saying doesn’t it. That’s not the best we can hope for and it excuses poor support and experiences for women. Our women deserve better. A woman’s births change her in profound ways. Women recount their birth stories as elderly women on their death beds. Birth matters. Little matters more. It can make and unmake women. We ought to be doing everything we can to respect women and protect their choices during labour and birth.
What I did to help myself overcome birth trauma
I don’t think I’ll ever truly get over what happened but I did do a lot of work to come to terms with it in preparation for my second birth. Here are some of the things that I did:
- Spent a lot of time thinking about my birth and what happened. I applied for my labour notes from the hospital through a freedom of information request and read them to try and understand what happened fully. This brought to light some things that I hadn’t known previously. It helped me to understand.
- Practised letting go, being kind to myself and positive visualisation.
- Talked about it a lot with people close to me and also with people who had gone through similar things. I found the VBAC Support Group UK and Birth Trauma Association groups on Facebook really helpful. There is also a twitter chat on Mondays at 8pm if you search the #birthtraumachat.
- Educated myself around birth, I vociferously read everything I could get my hands on. Knowledge is power.
- Read loads of positive birth stories to re-learn that birth doesn’t always have to be full of trauma, fear and pain.
- Decided to go for a Home Birth for my next birth.
- Practised the VBAC Natal Hypnotherapy CDs and read the accompanying book/completed the activities in it. I couldn’t recommend this more and feel this was really key to me overcoming my trauma.
- Hired a doula who had experienced a similar first birth to me and we spoke at length about our shared experiences. Whenever I felt negative, I turned to her and she would rally me with a pep talk. You can not put a price on the value of this.
In the end the biggest thing that has helped me come to terms with the first birth was having a healing vaginal home birth with my second child. My experiences were chalk and cheese and you can read about my positive HBAC birth story here.
My second birth gave me a fuller understanding of what birth is. Following my first birth ending in a c-section I had a niggling doubt that maybe I had ‘failed’ because I wasn’t ‘strong enough’ (I know how irrational that belief is).
My second birth showed me that I was strong enough and that labour isn’t always the same. The contractions in my first birth were way way worse due to the induction via an artificial breaking of my waters and subsequent syntocinon infusion. I didn’t ‘fail’ at my first birth. The hospital, its staff and its policies failed me, as they do thousands of women. Hospital policies and processes were applied to me rigidly, even when it was clear that it wasn’t my preference and/or it was having adverse effects.
I do wonder how I would feel today if I hadn’t experienced a healing second birth. How would I have felt about myself and my body if I felt I had ‘failed’ again. I just don’t know. I would have had more healing to do and would have had to work at it all over again.
Today, 5 years on I can see some benefits of what happened. I wonder whether I would have bonded with my child, the child I was not ready for, the way I did had I not truly thought I was about to lose him. I’ve never taken him for granted once and if I was to, I would only have to think back to the terror of that moment and it would set me straight. I will never forget the horror of that feeling that he could die.
As a result, I now understand birth trauma and have more empathy with others going through hard times. It made me become a positive birth advocate. It strengthened my feminist beliefs. I truly educated myself about birth and became informed. It has probably made me a better person. I’m not sure I would have appreciated my vaginal birth so much had I not had my c-section. I know my pelvic floor would be in a worse position for sure!
Having experienced both a C–section and a home birth though I can tell you that having a C-section is certainly not the easy way out at all. What you ‘escape’ in labour is clawed back in recovery. Opting for or not opting for a C-section is a personal choice, and ultimately that is what matters. That a woman’s informed choice is ALWAYS respected and that she is fully supported to achieve her desires. If you come across a woman who did not have her choices respected and is suffering as a result of this then just listen to her. Show her empathy and let her cry on your shoulder. Don’t tell her why she should be grateful, just tell her she is strong, beautiful and that she is enough.
If you liked this post you might also like my ultimate guide to pregnancy and childbirth that contains all of the posts I’ve written on the topic over the years, including my birth stories, my top tips and more.
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23 thoughts on “Overcoming birth trauma ”
Hi Nyomi, that was a very good read and comforting for me too. I had an emergency c section and felt crappy about it for ages. Mainly that I didn’t get cuddles immediately or that first feed, and wondering if it would affect the bond. But I am comforted seeing your amazing bond with Arlo, he seems such a sensitive, loving little boy and really super close to his mum and dad. And it’s great reading about your positive birth story, too. Hopefully that helped recover from the first trauma. I think it’s lovely how you gave birth in Mark’s arms.so much nicer than bent in half in a horrible hospital bed!
Thanks so much for your lovely comment Georgina. So sorry you have felt crappy about this too, it’s hard isn’t it! I can honestly say though my bond with Arlo is just as strong as my bond with Lena. He does have an allergy which may or may not have anything to do with the c-section! I love that I gave birth in mark’s arms too, that was really meaningful for me. I had planned to give birth in the pool but this was a great alternative. As neither of us saw Arlo born, her being passed on to my chest, felt a lot like her being passed to Mark too. We got to share the moment together and it meant everything to us both.
Thank you for reading and commenting, it means a lot to me. If you aren’t already following me on snapchat or Instagram I often post daily videos of our days on there too by the way.
Yes, it’s really hard! I think I read in another post you breastfed Arlo until he self-weaned.i only fed Wolly for three months, so if I had another baby I hope I would be able to do more. I think (with everything but particularly parenting) the second time around people feel more confident in themselves generally speaking. So I think I would be able to defend myself more against bossy midwives for a start! The midwives at Lena’s birth looked like they were really encouraging. I’m very happy for you that you had that experience.
I’ll try to work those sites out. I’m on here and YouTube at the moment. I’m not very techy!
Thank you for writing this. I didn’t want to comment on Facebook because I’m sure people think I whinge on about my birth experience too much as it is. It helps to know someone else understands. I really hope when the time comes I’ll get my healing birth too ❤️ Xxx
I’m so sorry you’ve experienced this too but so pleased you found the post helpful. I hope you get your healing birth too!! Thanks for commenting, it’s so nice to read!
A very touching read that brought a tear to my eye. I’m so pleased that your second birth was positive and both of your birth stories are inspirational in their own ways. X
Oh thank you Michelle, that’s really kind of you to say!
Brilliant post. I know too many women who’ve gone through something similar to you. I don’t know if they managed to take the steps towards healing like you did, which is why it’s so important that you’ve written this! I’m so glad you managed to have a healing birth the second time round and that it made you feel so much better.
Thank you! Yeah, I wish this didn’t happen to so many women. It’s not right!
Really interesting to read this – Arthur will be 2 this week and I struggled with what I have only just realised was PTSD – I had horrendous flashbacks for over a year and couldn’t watch anything in tv to do with labour or birth. I’m now on a waiting list to have a ‘debrief’ with the midwives at hospital where we will go through my notes and discuss what happened – apparently it should have been offered before. I didn’t realise what was happening to me because really, from the outside my labour and birth wasn’t ‘traumatic’ – I had a waterbirth, no pain relief and a totally healthy baby. However, the way I was treated (or more accurately left completely on my own) at hospital, a massive blood loss and extreme tear meant that the whole experience for me felt less than positive. I now understand that ‘trauma’ doesn’t fit a mould. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to bring myself to write about my birth story. So pleased you’ve had a positive outcome at last x
Oh I’m so sorry to hear you have struggled too Sarah. I had a debrief but it was too soon and I didn’t ask the right questions so perhaps the time will help you get the most out of the debrief. That’s the thing about birth trauma, often it isn’t what happened but how you were treated. Even in the best circumstances birth is very visceral and we need to make sure we support our women in working through that. I hope you debrief helps and if you ever need to talk further you know where I am! Xx
Thanks for writing this post – when people go through a difficult time I often worry about what to say or do to help – this post has helped a lot. So sorry you had to go through it in the first place though x
Thanks Sam! It’s a minefield, when people say but you got a healthy baby, they do mean well but it’s a bit like saying you don’t have a right to feel bad but you do feel bad. It’s a tough one!
This is a great post. I’m so glad you got have a healing second birth. I had a difficult first birth with forceps and severe blood loss and then a traumatic second birth with shoulder dystocia. I suffered flashbacks and PTSD of the fear and pain second time round, even though my daughter was fine. I still feel sad about not having the births I wanted, and I’m not having any more, but with CBT I have moved on and I can even watch an episode of One Born Every Minute now!
I’m sorry to hear you have had 2 traumatic experiences. I’m so pleased the CBT worked for you. I totally know what you mean about being able to watch one born, I couldn’t for ages but can now! Thanks for your comment.
I can really relate to this post. I suffered birth trauma after my first labour which ended in a forceps delivery, for me the thing that healed me most was having a straightforward home birth with my second child. I’m so glad I got that opportunity and definitely think there should be more support for women suffering from birth trauma. Well done for sharing your experience.
Thank you Bec! I agree. I’m sorry you suffered birth trauma with your first. I’m pleased you were able to have a healing home birth second time around. X
Great piece of writing can really empathise with your experience. Fantastic that you had a positive birth second time round with great preparation and support ❤️
Thank you Carla x
Bless you. I too had a v difficult birth first time, and thankfully a wonderful experience with my second. I found it very healing. A debrief helped lots too.
I’m pleased you had a better experience the second time too!
Thank you so much for sharing your story!
I’ve had an unnecessarily traumatic birth of my first (and only) little baby boy.
I’m so sorry to hear that Samantha. I hope you found it helpful and that in time you can heal some.