Birth trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after childbirth are used interchangeably and refer to a psychological condition that some women can experience directly after childbirth and in the following weeks, months and even years.
What is PTSD?
PTSD was first identified as a condition after the Vietnam war, when soldiers who had experienced frightening and traumatic events were unable to stop thinking about them once they returned home. Their anxiety about these events severely impacted upon their ability to readjust to normal everyday life. Humans had obviously suffered from this throughout history, but it now had a name, was a real condition and has subsequently been explored in depth.
PTSD after childbirth
It has not been until relatively recently that PTSD has been recognised as a condition suffered by many women after childbirth. In fact, a recent study estimated that as many as 30,000 women in the UK suffer from the effects of birth trauma and PTSD every year.*
Women can have flashbacks, nightmares, guilt about not enjoying motherhood and feeling like they should not be feeling like this after giving birth. Other symptoms include feelings of panic and being hypervigilant over their baby.
It can be a very isolating time, as those around us may not understand what is happening and people tend to think that if mother and baby are now healthy, then the mother should be grateful for this. But as we know, mental health is just as important as physical health for a mum to continue her journey into motherhood and have a happy family life.
What factors during labour and birth make it more likely?
You are more likely to be affected by birth trauma if your birth didn’t go as you imagined it would or if you experienced procedures which frightened you during your labour, birth or in the immediate postnatal period. These could include some of the following, but this list is by no means exhaustive:
- Having a long or painful induction of labour procedure, which may have included emergency procedures.
- Having an assisted delivery using forceps or ventouse.
- Having medical interventions that you didn’t think you would need.
- Going to the operating theatre for an emergency caesarean section.
- Requesting to have an epidural when you thought you would have an unmedicated birth.
- Having an ineffective epidural or being unable to access an epidural or pain relief when you felt that you needed it.
- Lack of communication from your midwife or other care providers. This includes not being listened to, staff attitudes, explanations you don’t fully understand and full information about procedures not being given before being carried out.
- A lack of privacy and dignity during care procedures. These include simple things such as people talking behind curtains about your care and not involving you, or staff repeatedly walking into your room without knocking and waiting.
- Feeling like events have overtaken your control.
- You had feelings where you feared for yours or your baby’s life.
- You or your baby were sick or ill after the birth requiring high dependency or intensive care treatment.
- You felt as though examinations and procedures were carried out before informed consent was obtained from you.
- You received poor postnatal care after your baby was born.
- You are a survivor of sexual abuse or rape.
What can I do to help myself?
PTSD and birth trauma can be hugely debilitating, prevent you from enjoying motherhood and family life and affect how you feel about your baby and future pregnancies. Although some of the symptoms can fade in time, there is help out there to enable you to deal with your feelings and to make sense of your situation.
- Contact the hospital where you received your care during your pregnancy and birth to request a debrief. This is an appointment for you to sit with a midwife or doctor and go through your notes to examine the events which caused your trauma. Understanding events during childbirth can clarify situations that have made you anxious and scared.
- After you have a thorough understanding of what happened, you may feel as though you want to raise a complaint. This can be done by contacting Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS).
- Seek help from your GP, who will be able to signpost you towards helpful resources and/or refer you for therapies known to work well with PTSD, specifically trauma-focused cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR).
- If you can afford it there will be private counselling and psychotherapy services available in your area, which can mean you will get seen sooner.
- More information can be found online at: https://www.birthtraumaassociation.org.uk/#
In summary, PTSD or birth trauma can impact enormously on what should be a happy time after your baby’s birth. You do not have to suffer in silence though, as this is a recognised condition and help is available.