You might be surprised to know that around 30% of women describe their birth experience as traumatic, and somewhere between 1.5-9% of women end up with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after giving birth. Partners, family or friends who witness a birth can also suffer from birth trauma, as can Midwives, Doctors and Doula’s. Let’s look at some common myths about birth trauma and help understand this common issue around birth in more depth.
Birth Trauma Myth Number 1: Only women (partners, birth support people) who experience births with lots of interventions, surgery or serious complications have birth upset or trauma.
This is not true, although birth trauma is more likely in a birth like this, even women who have very straightforward births can experience birth trauma. Sometimes women (and partners) are simply not prepared for the intensity of birth, it may have been much harder, longer (or quicker) and more painful than expected, or it could be that they didn’t feel prepared for the unexpected when it arose.
Women can be left experiencing upset about feeling like they weren’t heard or listened to, if they feel like they weren’t supported in the way they expected during or after the birth, or like their body let them down. Sometimes they can even feel like they let them self down in some way. Upset can also arise from something that occurred during pregnancy or after birth as well.
Birth Trauma Myth Number 2: As long as the mother and baby come out from the birth alive that is all that matters.
This is a common thing people say when a birth hasn’t gone smoothly or as the mother hoped, ended up with complications and or surgery. As a society we need to stop saying this to mothers! It’s so invalidating and potentially damaging.
A woman’s emotional experience and how she is left feeling after birth, is extremely important. A woman who is left feeling shattered, upset or traumatised after birth, also takes these feelings into the rest of her life, into her parenting, her relationship with her partner and other people, and into her relationship with herself.
This doesn’t mean that her birth has to go perfectly well in order to be okay. When women are prepared holistically for any possibility (and by this I don’t mean that they can use their breathing or relaxation skills to stay calm when a complication occurs) they can come out the other side whole and okay, yes they may be disappointed or upset, but they have more tools to process and work through this. This is one of the amazing and unique things about preparing with Birthing From Within classes.
Birth Trauma Myth Number 3: In order to heal from an upsetting or traumatic birth, you need to re-live or “feel” the event all over again.
No, this is not necessary. Although some women find it helpful to write out their birth story and look over/discuss their medical notes, re-hashing or re-telling the entire birth story is not generally done in a Birth Story Healing Circle or private session. Most people attending a circle/session have already told their birth story numerous times and have found it hasn’t resolved their upset. Some may have also avoided telling their story at all.
You already know all of the intimate details of your birth story, a Birth Story Healing Circle/Session is a unique opportunity to explore your birth upset/trauma in a new way, re-frame and find a new meaning for yourself.
Birth Trauma Myth Number 4: If a woman who has experienced birth upset or trauma goes on to have an easier or more positive birth experience next time, this will heal her birth trauma.
Not in all cases. Some women do find great healing for example if they had a caesarean birth the first time and then had a vaginal birth the next time, or if they had some other complication/intervention like forceps/ventouse and then push their baby out on their own the next time etc.
For other women, experiencing a positive birth although it can feel like a great achievement, can also serve as a reminder of what they missed out on the previous time, and can even make them feel worse about the traumatic event.
Healing trauma isn’t always so black and white. When someone suffers trauma the effects are stored in the body and can effect the person in a variety of ways, this doesn’t necessarily stop even if a woman has a good experience.
Birth Trauma Myth Number 5: Midwives, Obstetricians, Doulas and Birth Support people are used to all different kinds of births and rarely experience birth trauma.
Although care providers and support people are much more familiar with birth and have usually seen a lot, this doesn’t mean they don’t get upset or traumatised when things go wrong, complications occur or when the birthing woman or her partner have a hard time, or are upset during or after birth etc. Its usually upsetting for everyone involved.
Care providers can debrief in both informal settings over a coffee with co-workers and in more formal settings. Birth Story Healing Sessions are also an ideal and unique way for care providers and support people to work through traumatic and upsetting births that they witness. When care providers are able to regularly explore and move through any residual trauma and upset, they can be free to be more present at each birth they attend and be less affected by previous birth experiences.
Birth Trauma Myth Number 6: When someone suffers birth trauma or disappointment, they will get over it with time.
Not always. Some people do find that time heals how they feel about birth upset or trauma, but this often isn’t the case. Its common to even hear women in their later years still talk about what happened during giving birth with sadness and a sense of loss. Even if the acute symptoms of trauma ease with time, there can still be a lack of completion around the event.
Trauma isn’t just an isolated part of a persons life, its usually carried with them into the rest of their life, it can change who a person is, how they cope with stress, how they relate to others and even cause physical symptoms and complaints. Unresolved trauma and more extreme trauma such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can have long term effects on a persons well being and can be associated with anxiety, depression, eating disorders and substance abuse. These issues can then also have a greater societal impact on not only the trauma sufferer but their partner, children, family, friends and workmates.
Birth Trauma Myth Number 7: Birth trauma and upset are rare.
Actually its more common than most people think. Its estimated that around 25-34% of women find their birth experience to be traumatic. Around 2-9% experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder post birth. This is a huge number of women. For example, at G.V. Health where 1200 or so women give birth each year, there could be as many as 300-400+ women each year who have suffered trauma.
This also doesn’t include partners and other family members who have witnessed birth and Midwives, Doctors and Doulas. So the number is probably much greater than this. I personally find this really alarming and clearly there is a need for good support around birth trauma.
Birth Trauma Myth Number 8: When someone suffers birth trauma, they feel upset or traumatised immediately after the birth occurs.
Not always. After giving birth, even if it has been upsetting, disappointing or traumatic in some way, the effects aren’t always immediate. New parents are usually of course swept away in the hour to hour needs of their newborn, so sometimes this can mask or delay the realisation that a trauma has even occurred. Its also very normal for couples to experience a sense of relief that everything is over and they have their baby, and they will usually feel quite grateful to anyone involved in their birth in the early time after birth. Often they haven’t had time to even process what has happened at this stage, but these feelings can change a lot as time goes on.
The reaction of others around them at this time can also play a role in whether trauma becomes an issue, or whether some healing can start to take place. If women (and their partners) have someone who can just listen in a helpful way in the early weeks and months, this can be really valuable. If women’s feelings are not validated, and they are told to feel grateful for a healthy (ie: live) baby and it’s implied that their experience of birth isn’t important, that they aren’t remembering things correctly, or misunderstood something that happened, are just too highly strung and anxious and should just get over it, this can often serve to make the problem much worse.
Some women may only realise there’s some upset when they notice their reaction to other women sharing their births, it’s common to feel upset or even jealous when someone else shares a story we feel was perfect, normal or something we wanted. Some women will have flash backs to part of their birth, thoughts re-playing over and over in their mind, or often they will totally avoid thinking or talking about their birth all together. Sleep deprivation and having a baby that is unsettled or unwell can make it harder as well.
The effects of trauma are generally stored in our body, so sometimes it isn’t until another upsetting event happens, that we even see the effects. For example, even minor car accidents, an injury, surgery, major illness, witnessing (or being subject to) something violent (even on t.v.), natural disasters, sudden loud noises, or feeling really isolated or alone can be triggers for trauma. So sometimes one of these events at some time after the birth trauma may actually re-traumatise someone if they haven’t been able to process and heal from the birth trauma. You can see how important it might be that Birth Trauma (and any trauma for that matter) is resolved, as it can cause ongoing problems for the sufferer. Stay tuned for some of the common symptoms of trauma in upcoming posts.
Birth Trauma Myth Number 9: Women who go into birth feeling “positive” about it rarely get birth trauma. Women who are fearful about birth are more likely to have problems.
Not always. Women who go into birth with overly high expectations and who are overly confident and expecting birth should and will be empowering, pain free (or low in pain), be easy and effortless and that they should be calm, “in control” and quiet, can actually be more likely to feel upset, disappointed and even traumatised if the birth doesn’t live up to their ideal. When we set certain rules or expectations about what it “should” be like, then it can be problematic when it doesn’t pan out that way. In an ideal world, yes I would like to think all women could come out of birth feeling empowered, nothing would be more wonderful. However, we don’t live in an ideal world, an ideal maternity system or in a society that trusts birth and women, or even a society where women are taught to trust their own instincts, we can’t avoid being influenced by these things to some degree. When we believe that we can control everything that happens to us whether in birth or life with just positive or “the right” thinking, this then backfires on us when it doesn’t happen, we then can blame ourselves or whoever convinced us to do that in the first place.
The key is to be positive, realistic and flexible, which isn’t always an easy balance. Being prepared for birth by learning ways to cope with labour, picking a birth team that will support your desires, learning how to cope with the unexpected (and by this I don’t mean that you can simply use your relaxation tools to stay calm and relaxed when things don’t go to plan), I mean ACTUALLY really exploring concerns and worries, talking about them, working through them, not just doing a relaxation-fear release exercise like I used to teach in class. These kinds of exercises can give women the illusion that they have dealt with their fears, but I really believe for most all they do is make them think their fears are gone, mostly they just put women into denial and avoidance as they are told if they give power or too much thought to their fears, they will come true. Actually, women who talk about their fears and are willing to explore them, learn more about themselves and how they can cope with anything that comes their way, and have broad expectations of how birth can be, are more likely to be prepared for birth, in turn less fearful and less likely to be traumatised. This is one of the prime reasons I now mentor couples through Birthing From Within classes, as one of the main goals aside from preparing couples on all levels for birth and parenting, is to prevent birth trauma.