When Birth is Traumatic

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Up to 30% of birthing people feel traumatized by their birth experience. When someone tries to talk about their feelings about their birth, especially if those feelings are negative, they often hear things like “Well, just be happy you have a healthy baby.” Or “But look at that beautiful baby, you should be happy!” The truth is most people experience all kinds of emotions during the postpartum weeks, some good and some difficult. This is completely normal. Birth is a major event and the body goes through a major transformation after birth. The brain is making all kinds of new neural pathways (making us into parents), there are major hormonal changes (to produce milk, bond, manage monotony, heal the uterus) and there is a huge physical load (making milk, healing from birth, ligaments and muscles returning to non-pregnancy shape). Expecting someone to be only happy during this time is like expecting a baby to never cry!

In addition, there can be a mix of feelings about the birth experience. This is not always related to having a difficult birth in terms of the physical experience or

having complications. So, a person can have a very straight forward birth that is aligned with what they planned and still experience trauma. Trauma is a very subjective experience and will usually be integrated within a few months. However, the feelings can be very strong and unpleasant. Sometimes these feelings can interfere with bonding with the baby, leading to feelings of guilt.

If you feel that your birth was traumatic:

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1.       Write about your birth and your feelings about it. It’s good to externalize the feelings in a safe setting.

2.       Talk to your care provider or a counselor about your feelings. However, if they say things like “You should be happy” or you don’t feel heard, find someone else to talk to. Many care providers don’t have a good understanding of trauma related to birth.

3.       Get some gentle exercise like walking or yoga. Bilateral movement (rhythmically moving both sides of the body) helps us to integrate trauma.

4.       Crying is good. It helps you to integrate and release the feelings you have.

5.       Know that you are not alone and that many people have negative feelings about their birth.

6.       Know that, if you feel resentment towards your baby it doesn’t mean you are a bad mother. As you move through your negative feelings about the birth, this will fade. It’s good to talk to a counselor about these kinds of feelings.

7.       If you have physical symptoms like an upset stomach, racing heart or feeling breathless when you think or talk about your birth, seek out a counselor who specializes in trauma.

If someone you know tells you their birth was traumatic:

1.       Listen to their story. Say things like “That must have been so difficult for you.” Or “I’m so sorry you went through that.”

2.       Sit with them as they cry. Crying is important to release the feelings about the birth. Depending on your relationship you could hold their hand as they cry or hug them, literally letting them cry on your shoulder.

3.       Ask them if there is anything you can do to help them.

4.       If you live close by, bring a pre-prepared meal, offer to do a load of laundry, take any older children out for a couple of hours or offer to do the dishes. These practical things make all the difference!

5.       Check in with them each week or month depending on your relationship. It can be hard to reach out when you are feeling down.

Don’t:

Tell them they should be happy.

Tell them they’ll forget all about it soon.

Judge or question their story.

Tell them all about your own birth.

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Resources:

For referrals to mental health services in Ontario call The Mental Health Helpline 1-866-531-2600.

Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and translation is available.

www.mentalhealthhelpline.ca

For information about therapy for psychological trauma:

www.emdria.org

www.brainspotting.com

If you feel that you were treated abusively during your birth, contact the Reproductive Justice Project to tell your story and/or find support to make a formal complaint.