Birth trauma

Click to the right for a video from Best Beginnings about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and birth trauma.

You may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if you experience:

  • a difficult labour with a long and painful delivery
  • an unplanned caesarean section
  • emergency treatment
  • other shocking, unexpected and traumatic experiences during birth.

This is also called birth trauma. The impact of these experiences is often underestimated, as people may feel that the baby is adequate compensation for the trauma and that, as a new mother, you will soon forget it in the joy of motherhood.

However, a traumatic childbirth and developing PTSD can impair your relationship with both your baby and your partner. You may feel acute disappointment that childbirth was not the experience you were hoping for, and feel angry with the medical staff if you felt that the delivery wasn't handled well. If you develop PTSD, you're likely to also experience flashbacks or unwanted memories of the traumatic birth. This might mean that you feel anxious about having another baby. Here is what one mother said:

"I had a traumatic birth. I was so petrified that my son would die that in my head it was easier not to love him just in case."

  • re-living aspects of the trauma
  • vivid flashbacks (feeling that the trauma is happening all over again)
  • intrusive thoughts and images
  • nightmares
  • intense distress at real or symbolic reminders of the trauma
  • physical sensations such as pain, sweating nausea or trembling, alertness or feeling on edge
  • panicking when reminded of the trauma
  • being easily upset or angry
  • extreme alertness
  • disturbed sleep or a lack of sleep
  • irritability and aggressive behaviour
  • lack of concentration
  • being easily startled
  • self-destructive behaviour or recklessness - this could include drinking alcohol or using drugs
  • avoiding feelings or memories
  • keeping uneccessarily busy
  • avoiding situations that remind you of the trauma
  • repressing memories (being unable to remember aspects of the event)

The treatments for PTSD are primarily talking therapies:

  • Trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which is specifically designed to to treat PTSD (see MIND's resources on 'CBT' for more information).
  • Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR). In this treatment you are guided by a therapist to make rhythmic eye movements while recalling the traumatic event. The eye movements are designed to stimulate the information-processing system in the brain. The aim of the treatment is to help you process the traumatic events, and speed up re-adjustment and recovery.

Medication is not normally offered to treat PTSD but, as it is common to also experience anxiety and depression to alongside PTSD, your doctor might offer you medication to treat this. Your doctor might also offer you medication to support you to feel more stable and able to care for your baby, or if there's a long wait for talking treatments in your area. See MIND's resources on 'Treatments for PTSD' for more information.

Coping with the after effects of a traumatic birth can feel very challenging, but there are some things you can do to help yourself cope:

  • Learn to manage difficult emotions. If you find yourself struggling with strong feelings of anger or anxiety, it can be helpful to think about ways to manage these emotions. See MIND's resources on 'How to cope with anger' and 'Understanding anxiety and panic attacks' for ideas.
  • Learn some relaxation techniques. You might want to try meditation, breathing exercises or mindfulness to stay calm and manage your triggers.
  • Giver yourself time. It can feel frustrating to be struggling with PTSD symptoms, and it's easy to get angry with yourself for not 'getting over' it. But recovering from a trauma takes time, and its important to allow yourself space to do so. Putting pressure on yourself to get better can end up making you feel worse. Make a note reminding yourself to take time to recover, or asked loved ones to remind you whenever you're struggling that recovery takes time.
  • Contact specialist organisations. The Birth Trauma Association has more information about birth trauma and PTSD, including support for fathers and partners.