Published on September 28th, 2013 | by Amy Wood Reisner
Dealing with Birth Trauma: You Are Not Alone
You waited almost 10 months to meet your little one, or little ones, and then something unexpected happened. That beautiful experience they call birth, the one you have envisioned ever since conception, ends up not going as planned. Not only that, but you are left with shock, wrecked emotions, and possibly even physical damage from the event.
Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can follow childbirth for some women. This is known as birth trauma.
Many factors can contribute to birth trauma: complications during labor and delivery, inadequate or missing informed consent, a lack of respect for the laboring mother from her care providers, hostility, coercion, and more.
Labor and delivery are not just physical. They are also emotional and mental. In the same way you might prepare yourself for a race, you prepare yourself for labor and delivery. When your plan and your care provider’s plans don’t match up, it can be a jolt to your physical and mental system and, sometimes, the cause of birth trauma.
Many women expect hospitals to cooperate with their birth plans. Unfortunately, many women also experience what Alanna Swiatkowski did.
“I typed out my birth plan and made sure it was on file with our doctor, and I also brought a copy to the hospital when I was in labor,” Alanna said. “I expected the hospital to be on board with a natural labor and honor my wishes within reason. I knew it would be painful, but expected that I could deliver without an epidural. Because I had a pretty normal and uneventful pregnancy, I expected a beautiful, uneventful labor and delivery!”
But things went very differently than planned for Alanna.
“We were unprepared for the medical environment and option we experienced in the hospital,” Alanna said. “I was offered an epidural and Pitocin almost immediately.”
After 30 hours of labor and five hours of pushing, Alanna’s daughter was born. However, even the joy of her daughter’s arrival could not take away the trauma she had experienced.
“I was so drugged that I thought my daughter died,” Alanna said. “I eventually came to enough to realize that I was still alive, and so was she. I saw her for the first time four hours after she was born. I was in so much pain and under an incredible amount of sedation that I doubted and debated the fact that she was my baby.” Such fear of serious injury to a loved one can result in PTSD.
Lack of Informed Consent
According to the Birth Trauma Association, “It is not always the sensational or dramatic events that trigger childbirth trauma but other factors such as loss of control, loss of dignity, the hostile or difficult attitudes of the people around them, feelings of not being heard or the absence of informed consent to medical procedures.”
Jennifer Penar experienced this after an intense labor when she was given Pitocin.
In her birth plan, Jennifer had specifically said she did not want an episiotomy. But the doctors did not respect her wishes.
“During the short time I was pushing, the OB decided to give me an unrequested episiotomy that I was not even consulted about,” Jennifer said. “My husband, who was holding one of my legs and could see everything, said that I was pushing, and there was no sign of problems, no one said anything about any problems, and suddenly, the OB just up and cut me.”
“Finally, my healthy firstborn was delivered,” Jennifer said. “I heard her cry and expected to at least have the OB hold her up for me to see, but instead her cord was immediately cut and she was whisked over to a station several feet away and out of my range of vision.” She couldn’t see her baby because the hospital did not allow contacts nor glasses during delivery.
Even after her daughter’s birth, Jennifer’s traumatic experience continued.
“They were cleaning her up, and that was when I began to feel strange sensations inside my uterus,” Jennifer said. “The OB was tugging on the umbilical cord, and hard enough that I could feel it, even with the epidural not yet worn off. It was only 2 to 3 minutes, at most, since I gave birth, and I now know that the OB was NOT allowing my body the time to naturally detach the placenta on its own, putting me at higher risk of hemorrhaging, and all only for the convenience of the OB! The placenta gave way, and was pulled out of me unceremoniously, like someone was taking out the trash. I still feel sick and nauseous just remembering the feeling. I felt violated physically by the OB literally ripping the placenta out of me just minutes after giving birth, and giving me an unnecessary, unwanted episiotomy.”
Traumatic birth experiences can occur not only under the care of a doctor, but also during a midwife-assisted birth. Cindy Melendez experienced birth trauma with a midwife.
“I started labor around Noon, and my husband took me to the hospital. We got there at 12:30 p.m.,” Cindy said. “As soon as the midwife saw me, she told us that the baby wasn’t in the right position and that they needed to perform a c-section. But instead of getting me ready for surgery, she decided to try to accommodate the baby and put her whole hand inside my uterus trying to find the baby’s head and caused me so much pain. My husband and I told her to stop but she didn’t.”
Cindy still deals with pelvic pain from that experience.
Struggles After Birth
Difficulties after birth can also cause trauma. Dustyn Holland recalls what it was like for his wife after giving birth to their son.
“I think that any mother, especially first time mothers, experience a certain level of trauma after giving birth,” Dustyn said. “Depression following the birth of my son was the main one we dealt with. This was closely followed by fear. Beyond the physical changes that had taken place to her body, the mental strain and the overwhelming nature of being a new mother and all that entails can be a shock to any person. I remember when she began breastfeeding, or began to attempt to breastfeed. She did figure it out and my son breastfed enough to be one of the chubbiest babies I have ever seen, but those first couple of weeks were overwhelming to my wife. Her personal convictions toward the benefits of breastfeeding contradicted application, which made my wife feel like a failure.”
Postpartum Depression and Postpartum Anxiety
Birth trauma itself can be the cause of postpartum complications. Alanna’s trauma during labor and delivery led to serious after-effects.
“I experienced a lot of anxiety after my daughter was born, and eventually was diagnosed with postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety, and later PTSD,” Alanna said.
Help in Dealing with Birth Trauma
If you have experienced birth trauma, know that you are not alone. Many women experience trauma symptoms after birth and don’t know what name to give it. The families interviewed for this article advised that other parents educate themselves and not rely on doctors or midwives to give all the information necessary to make informed decisions.
If you are dealing with birth trauma, make sure you include family and friends in the healing process. “I am grateful that my husband and I had a strong support system and had people who helped us identify the birth trauma, depression, and anxiety during the months following our daughter’s birth,” Alanna said.
Finally, seek out professional help either from a counselor or psychologist. When you expect your labor and delivery to go a certain way only to experience trauma, it is important to deal with these emotions. Cognitive, talk, and medical therapies can all be helpful in the healing process.
To comment on this article or to see a list of birth trauma healing resources, see the blog post Resources for Healing from Birth Trauma.
Photo by Julie Johnson Cote