Understanding birth trauma
For many parents, a baby’s birth is a positive and awe-inspiring experience. However, some parents find it traumatic even if their baby is healthy and well. Going through a birth involves momentous physiological and psychological changes in a rapid time frame.
Birth trauma can involve a physical trauma such as a pelvic floor injury or it can be psychological. Often it is both. Birth trauma is very subjective, meaning that it does not have to be life threatening or medically traumatic to have a psychological impact. It is just experienced to be traumatic by that woman.
1 in 3 women in Australia describe their birth experience as traumatic.
Some types of trauma are caused by emergency situations such as when a person is rushed into hospital for an emergency birth or experiences birth loss or baby being born with a disability. Parents can also experience trauma in situations where they feel powerless or out of control, not listened to or in situations where the birth does not meet expectations. It can also arise when a past trauma is re-awakened e.g., sexual assault. Partners or other support people can experience birth trauma as well.
Some people who experience birth trauma suffer relatively short-lived effects that resolve on their own or with some support, either informal or professional. Sometimes, people’s symptoms do not ease over the months after birth and they may need professional support and treatment from a doctor, counsellor or both. This can apply to a person who witnesses a birth as well.
Symptoms of ongoing birth trauma
Some signs of ongoing birth trauma effects include:
- Feelings of panic or terror when reminded of the birth. Sometimes sensory reminders such as smells or sounds can trigger this reaction.
- Unwanted memories or flashbacks of the birth that appear suddenly and without warning.
- Strong feelings of anger about the birth.
- Replaying the events over and over.
- Feeling guilty that the birth turned out the way it did.
- Avoiding reminders, such as avoiding driving near the hospital where it happened.
- Feeling unemotional, numb or detached.
- Relationship issues.
Sometimes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder develops after a traumatic birth, and this may need some more targeted interventions.
It is important to remember that professional and peer support is available if needed. Being heard and acknowledged in a safe environment is an important part of the recovery process.
For more information, resources and support, please visit the Australasian Birth Trauma Association website at www.birthtrauma.org.au
- Psychological consequences of pelvic floor trauma following vaginal birth: A qualitative study from two Australian tertiary maternity units. Skinner et al. 2018.
Date of Last Review: September 2021