A stress of a difficult birth can take its toll both emotionally and physically. Taking the first steps will help the healing process
Having a baby is supposed to be one of the happiest experiences of your life, but according to the Birth Trauma Association every year, 200,000 new mums are left feeling distressed about the way their babies came into the world.
What is birth trauma?
Birth is an experience that can leave us all wondering what just happened, but for some women they’re left with birth trauma, essentially post-traumatic stress disorder after the event.
‘Symptoms include flashbacks, depressive feelings, feelings of inadequacy and recurring negative thoughts about your experience,’ says Maureen Treadwell, co-founder of the Birth Trauma Association (BTA).
And you don’t necessarily have to have had a horrific time in the delivery suite to develop birth trauma. ‘Women who’ve had straightforward deliveries can also be affected,’ says Maureen. ‘If they felt as though they had control snatched away from them, for example.’
Whatever the reason, it is possible to come to terms with bad feelings, enjoy motherhood and have a positive subsequent birth experience if you address your emotions…
Feeling like: You never want to go through birth again
If you’ve had a difficult labour, many women reason ‘why do it again?’ – even if they want more children. Before making a decision about future pregnancies, it’s helpful to talk to medical professionals about what took place when you gave birth, so you understand what happened.
‘Most hospitals offer a Birth Afterthoughts service where you can talk through your experience with a specialist midwife,’ explains midwife counsellor Sue Frame.
Remember, too, that history rarely repeats itself. ‘Second labours are almost always quicker and easier,’ says consultant obstetrician Patrick O’Brien, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
Feeling like: A failure after having a C-section
Many women who end up delivering in the operating theatre feel as though they’ve failed at motherhood before it’s even begun.
Sue Frame advises women in this situation to request a debriefing session with your hospital’s Birth Afterthoughts service. ‘Often, this helps you understand that a caesarean was the only option, and nothing you did could have changed it,’ she says.
Talking to other women who have had caesareans can be helpful, too. ‘Not everyone feels negatively about caesareans,’ explains Maureen Treadwell. ‘Speaking to these mums can rebuild your self-esteem and help you realise that it wasn’t your fault.’
And while it’s important to be prepared for the possibility of a section in the future, don’t assume that a natural birth is unattainable. ‘Around 60 to 70 per cent of women who attempt a vaginal birth after a caesarean (VBAC) are successful,’ says Patrick O’Brien.
Feeling like: Scared of having sex since giving birth
It’s not unusual to feel strange, or too sore, to contemplate sex for months after giving birth. If you’re concerned, it can be worth seeing your GP before having sex to reassure you that you’ve properly healed. If the check-up gives you the all-clear, go slowly.
‘Build up intimacy gradually until you’re ready for sex,’ says Sue Frame. ‘And if the thought of sex really upsets you, seek advice from your GP: a session of NHS psychosexual therapy can help.’
Feeling like: Having flashbacks and nightmares about the birth
Classic symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) include flashbacks, nightmares and intrusive thoughts about your experience. Some women feel panicky when others discuss their birth stories, however happy.
Around 30 per cent of new mums experience some PTSD symptoms. If, however, you’re experiencing symptoms after eight to 12 weeks, see your GP.
Feeling like: Upset with treatment in the delivery suite
The key to a good birth is how it’s managed. ‘Two women can have almost the same experience, but the one who felt respected and well informed will look back on it more positively than the one who felt that decisions were taken away from her or that she was rudely spoken to,’ says Patrick O’Brien.
If you feel your labour was mismanaged, try writing an account of what happened. ‘Simply writing your birth story can be therapeutic,’ says Sue Frame.
Asking for a debrief can help you understand the care you received. If you’re still not happy, making an official complaint, by writing to the hospital’s Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) is an option.