Unpacking Traumatic Birth and Learning How to Cope

Last Updated: June 13, 2024
Liesel Teen, RN-BSN

By Liesel Teen

BSN, RN, Practicing Labor and Delivery Nurse

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We can try to prepare for birth and hope that things go according to plan, but even with the best intentions – birth trauma occurs far more often than you’d think.

By talking more about birth trauma, we can help the mamas suffering identify when it’s going on and get the help and support they need to find peace.

The thing about traumatic birth is that it can happen to anyone. There are no set of criteria that define birth trauma, and truly only the birthing mama gets to decide if her birth caused trauma.

Birth trauma can make it difficult to bond with baby and puts you at a greater risk for mental health complications such as postnatal PTSD, postpartum depression, and postpartum anxiety.

But luckily, there are some things that you can do to help process your experience and find peace in your birth story. Read on to learn more!

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What is birth trauma?

According to PATTCh, an organization dedicated to the prevention and treatment of traumatic childbirth, “a birth is defined as traumatic if the woman was or believed she or her baby was in danger of injury or death, and she felt helpless, out of control, or alone, and can occur at any point in labor and birth (Beck, 2004a).”

But what’s essential to note is that this definition is based on how things were perceived by the birthing mama and does not take into account the opinions of the healthcare providers involved.

In other words, birth trauma exists whenever an individual says that her birth is traumatic. And while it’s hard to quantify, research suggests that up to 45% of new mothers report experiencing birth trauma (source).

To bring some context to this definition, birth trauma might occur when:

  • Your birth includes medical interventions you weren’t expecting (this could be induction, epidural use, forceps or vacuum extraction, C-section, or anything in between)
  • A shoulder dystocia occurs
  • There is a dip or drop in baby’s heart rate during labor
  • You stall during labor and are unable to progress
  • Baby is born premature
  • Your little one needs to go to the NICU
  • You felt mistreated by your provider during birth
  • There was a lack of communication during your birth
  • You experienced feelings of disrespect during or immediately after your birth

But in no way is this an exhaustive list! Birth can result in trauma for countless reasons, with the bottom line always being that only you can define your birth as traumatic.

What might look like a positive or “normal” birth experience to an outsider might result in deep trauma for the mother. And on the other hand, a birth that looked negative or traumatic may not result in trauma if the mother is coping well.

There can be no assumptions when it comes to traumatic birth, and best practice is to tread with compassion and allow all mamas the space and support they need to process their experience.

How can a traumatic birth impact mom and/or baby?

Like I said in the introduction, birth trauma is something we need to be talking about more so that more mamas can recognize and process their experience. This is because a traumatic birth puts mom at an increased risk for perinatal mood disorders.

This includes more common obstacles like postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety, but the less talked about postpartum PTSD is of particular concern for mamas with birth trauma.

In addition to the psychological impacts of birth trauma on mama’s day-to-day life, birth trauma can also impact breastfeeding and mother-infant bonding.

Risk factors for birth trauma

We already talked about how traumatic birth can happen to any mother, but researchers are looking at what might put some women at higher risk.

Here are some of the findings from a 2015 literature review aimed at “Understanding Psychological Traumatic Birth Experiences”:

  • Having a preexisting mental health disorder
  • A lack of support in the form of family, friends, and community
  • History of abuse
  • Obstetric emergencies during birth – especially unplanned C-sections
  • Neonatal complications during pregnancy or after birth
  • Poor quality of provider interactions before during or immediately after birth
  • NICU stays for baby
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Postnatal PTSD and Birth Trauma

Because it isn’t talked about as often, I want to get a little more into the warning signs and signals of postnatal PTSD. This way, you’ll be able to identify if you could be suffering from the effects of birth trauma.

I so often hear from mamas that they have no idea what they are feeling isn’t “normal” for postpartum. They have no idea birth trauma is a thing, and also might not realize their PPD/PPA could all be traced back to a traumatic birth.

Occasional postnatal PTSD is misdiagnosed as PPD or PPA as well.

To be diagnosed with postnatal PTSD after birth, providers look for the prevalence of at least 9 defining symptoms. While only an estimated 1-3% of women are diagnosed with full-blown PTSD after birth, a much larger percentage, as many as 25% have at least one or more symptoms. Researchers also estimate that undiagnosed PTSD could be as high as 17% of new mothers! (source)

These statistics are staggering, and quite frankly we need to be doing more to support mothers and help them work through birth trauma!

Signs and symptoms

Some of the things that characterize postnatal PTSD include (source):

  • Flashbacks of birth or the immediate aftermath
  • Nightmares about your birth
  • Insomnia
  • Fear of birth
  • Panic attacks
  • Avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event
  • Inability to recall aspects of the event
  • Hyper-vigilance, a feeling of always being “on guard”
  • Heightened anxiety

The major difference to note between PTSD and other perinatal mood disorders is that PTSD is caused by the way our brain has processed the memory of the event.

PTSD is always event-related whereas postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety aren’t tied to a single event.

Tips for processing your traumatic birth

If you think you are experiencing birth trauma, there is a lot you can do to feel better!

  • Talk therapy: Talk therapy is so important when it comes to birth trauma! I cannot emphasize this enough! There are two different well-researched forms of talk therapy that are particularly helpful for treating PTSD and birth trauma. When finding a therapist, connecting with someone that has a specialty or experience in perinatal mood disorders can be especially helpful for working through birth trauma
  • Medication: In addition to talk therapy, medication can help when you are experiencing other mental health disorders as a result of or in conjunction with your birth trauma
  • Find a community: Connecting with other women suffering from a traumatic birth, or another perinatal mood disorder, can be so helpful! Getting to talk with real moms who can relate to what you’re going through can help you feel less isolated and alone
  • Tell your birth story: Telling your birth story to people you love and trust can be a powerful way to process what happened and find peace in the way your birth unfolded. So many wonderful women have told their traumatic birth stories to me and talk about how empowering and cathartic this is
  • Identify triggers: If you can identify what triggers you to have flashbacks or anxiety related to your birth, you can better prepare to cope with them. Often triggers include things like dates, certain pictures, places, or stories
  • Focus on healthy habits: I know it’s not always easy to focus on your physical well-being when you are suffering mentally, but eating healthy, nourishing foods, regularly moving your body, and getting enough sleep can seriously help your recovery!

Preventing birth trauma

While the bulk of this article has been about how to identify and cope with birth trauma, I want to include some suggestions of how to prevent birth trauma too.

This might be for first-time mamas worried about this happening to them, but it’s also for the mamas that suffered and want to be proactive the second time around.

  • Learn as much as you can about birth: Education is one of the most powerful ways to erase the unknown and feel confident about what’s going to happen during birth. Knowing what to expect from the timeline or birth, and also being informed about various interventions and emergencies, can help you process unexpected birth events better. It will also prepare you to advocate in a meaningful way should things unfold differently than expected. Birth classes are a wonderful way to do this
  • Plan for interventions: It’s no secret that I am an advocate for birth plans. And that’s because a good birth plan template helps you think through what you want to happen, but also alerts you to other possibilities. Planning for the unexpected – such as an unplanned C-section – can help it feel less scary if it ends of happening
  • Listen to birth stories: Hearing as many birth stories as possible will help you mentally prepare for all of the different possibilities and outcomes of birth. Birth is wildly unpredictable, and hearing the stories of others is a great way to come to terms with this reality
  • Change providers/practices if you see red flags: If you have any inkling that your provider or birthplace will not communicate effectively during birth, hear your concerns, or involve you in care decisions in a way that makes you feel comfortable and valued – switch practices! I know this can be a hassle but doing it now can make for a far more positive birth!
  • Gain a sense of control however you can: This can often come from birth education, a well-thought-out birth plan, and a wonderful support team
  • Talk to your partner about the possibility of birth trauma: Alerting your partner to this possibility can help them better advocate for you and your well-being during birth – especially if an emergency comes up

Related Reading: 23 Ways to Advocate for Yourself During Birth

Traumatic birth stories

I’ve mentioned a few times the power of talking and telling your birth story as a way to process traumatic birth. But listening to the stories of other women that suffered birth trauma can be extremely liberating too!

It’s easy to feel isolated and lonely in your experience. And while your birth experience is unique to you, hearing the stories of others can make you feel less alone.

I’m going to wrap up this article with a list of just a few of the incredible birth stories shared on the Mommy Labor Nurse Podcast for you to hear:

And leave you with some resources that can help you get the help you need. Because you can process your traumatic birth and find peace <3

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Liesel Teen, RN-BSN

Liesel Teen

BSN, RN, Practicing Labor and Delivery Nurse

As a labor and delivery nurse, I’ve spent countless hours with women who felt anxious — even fearful — about giving birth. I want you to know it doesn’t have to be that way for you!

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