Imagine this: there are two people in labor at the same time at a hospital. Both of them planned vaginal childbirths. But their labors didn’t go smoothly, and the well-being of their babies dictated that both undergo emergency caesarean sections.
Both ultimately delivered healthy babies, but that’s where the similarity of experience ended.
Their postpartum journeys were drastically different: One parent healed from the surgery and went on to enjoy the child’s infancy; the other healed physically but started having flashbacks shortly after leaving the hospital. She couldn’t hold her baby without reliving how scared she felt moments before the baby was first handed to her, after a hastily assembled emergency surgery, where medical staff were so focused on the task at hand that the patient felt like an object rather than the vulnerable, terrified person she was in that moment.
Birth trauma is widespread but cloaked in a stigmatized silence that prevents people from seeking treatment.
For a significant minority of people who give birth, the experience ends up more like the second scenario than the first one: as many as 45% of parents who went through labor — laboring parents are primarily mothers, but not all people who give birth identify as women — report that the experience was traumatic (Alcorn, O’Donovan, Patrick, Creedy, & Devilly, 2010). And 9% of people who give birth will go on to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Birth trauma, as defined by Cheryl Tatano Beck DNSc, CNM, is caused by an event or series of events during labor and delivery that involves the birthing person experiencing an actual or perceived threat of injury or death to the parent or unborn child — or by a birth experience that leaves them feeling stripped of their dignity. Beck writes that “birth trauma lies in the eye of the beholder,” meaning that the parent may experience terror, helplessness, powerlessness, or horror while, from the perspective of medical staff or partners, the labor was uneventful.
Like the physical effects of childbirth, which are regularly underdiagnosed and treated, leaving new parents to suffer for years with treatable injuries, birth trauma is widespread but cloaked in a stigmatized silence that prevents people from seeking treatment. And without treatment, it has the potential to destroy the joy of the postpartum period with shame and self-blame.
By the time patients seek my help, they have been dealing with full-blown PTSD or other mood symptoms for months, even years.
As a trauma therapist specializing in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, I see this all the time. By the time patients seek my help, they have been dealing with full-blown PTSD or other mood symptoms for months, even years. They talk about feeling like they were assaulted in front of their entire family during nonconsensual cervical exams, or of doctors deploying forceps with such force that they were dragged down the hospital bed. Other experiences that can cause birth trauma include a prolapsed cord, a baby needing the NICU, severe postpartum injury, like tearing or hemorrhaging, and a prior history of trauma, like sexual assault/abuse.
In fact, birth trauma has major similarities to sexual assault: both involve women feeling objectified, violated, stripped of dignity, and unable to escape. And – no surprise – both come with a tragic societal stigma around talking about the experience, which makes millions of people suffering from a common experience feel isolated and alone.
We need to continually push to destigmatize birth trauma to create a culture of nonjudgement and acceptance…
This shame-based silence is a tragedy, because both types of trauma are treatable with trauma therapies, which are especially effective if the trauma event is addressed early. Trauma therapy helps undo the painful sense of aloneness, helping people feel connected, and providing a window for them to reclaim their vitality. When taking care of a newborn, sleep-deprived parents need all the vitality they can harness.
We need to continually push to destigmatize birth trauma to create a culture of nonjudgement and acceptance, allowing sufferers to feel empowered to reach out for help.
If a new parent is experiencing flashbacks, a feeling of numbness, hypervigilance, or detachment, remember: it’s not your fault, and it doesn’t have to be this way. Help is out there.