Saturday, August 15, 2009

August 15th is Birth Trauma Awareness Day

I wanted to pass along the information I received about Birth Trauma Awareness Day:

Press release:

Read more at :

From the website.....

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

When we talk of birth trauma, we mean Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that occurs after childbirth. We also include those women who may not meet the clinical criteria for PTSD but who have some of the symptoms of the disorder.

PTSD is the term for a set of normal reactions to a traumatic, scary or bad experience. It is a disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events. We usually recognize these as things like military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults like rape. However, a traumatic experience can be any experience involving the threat of death or serious injury to an individual or another person close to them (e.g. their baby) so it is now understood that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can be a consequence of a traumatic birth.

Characteristic features of PTSD include:

  • An experience involving the threat of death or serious injury to an individual or another person close to them (e.g. their baby).
  • A response of intense fear, helplessness or horror to that experience.
  • The persistent re-experiencing of the event by way of recurrent intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares. The individual will usually feel distressed, anxious or panicky when exposed to things which remind them of the event.
  • Avoidance of anything that reminds them of the trauma. This can include talking about it, although sometimes women may go through a stage of talking of their traumatic experience a lot so that it obsesses them at times.
  • Bad memories and the need to avoid any reminders of the trauma, will often result in difficulties with sleeping and concentrating. Sufferers may also feel angry, irritable and be hyper vigilant (feel jumpy or on their guard all the time).

It is important to remember that PTSD is a normal response to a traumatic experience. The re-experiencing of the event with flashbacks accompanied by genuine anxiety and fear are beyond the sufferer's control. They are the mind's way of trying to make sense of an extremely scary experience and are not a sign individual 'weakness' or inability to cope.

Who gets Birth Trauma?

Birth trauma is in the eye of the beholder’
Cheryl Beck (Nursing Research January/February 2004 Vol 53, No.1)

It is clear that some women experience events during childbirth (as well as in pregnancy or immediately after birth) that would traumatise any normal person.
For other women, it is not always the sensational or dramatic events that trigger childbirth trauma but other factors such as loss of control, loss of dignity, the hostile or difficult attitudes of the people around them, feelings of not being heard or the absence of informed consent to medical procedures.

Research into the area is limited and, to date, it has largely focused on the importance of the type of delivery. It is clear however, that there are risk factors for Post Natal PTSD which include a very complicated mix of objective (e.g. the type of delivery) and subjective (e.g. feelings of loss of control) factors. They include:

  • Lengthy labour or short and very painful labour
  • Induction
  • Poor pain relief
  • Feelings of loss of control
  • High levels of medical intervention
  • Traumatic or emergency deliveries, e.g. emergency caesarean section
  • Impersonal treatment or problems with the staff attitudes
  • Not being listened to
  • Lack of information or explanation
  • Lack of privacy and dignity
  • Fear for baby's safety
  • Baby’s stay in SCBU/NICU
  • Poor postnatal care
  • Previous trauma (for example, in childhood, with a previous birth or domestic violence)

In addition, many women who do not have PTSD, suffer from some of the symptoms of PTSD after undergoing difficult birth experiences and this can cause them genuine and long-lasting distress. These women are also in need of support.

Finally, men who witness their partner’s traumatic childbirth experience may also feel traumatised as a result. Please see our ‘partners’ section

What is different about Post Natal PTSD?

It is, perhaps, difficult to understand how a process as seemingly ‘natural’ as childbirth can be traumatising but it has been clear for many years that women can suffer extreme psychological distress as a consequence of their childbirth experience for a complex variety of reasons which are frequently related to the nature of delivery. Unfortunately, the difference between the common perception of childbirth and some women’s experience of it means that women who suffer Post Natal PTSD symptoms frequently find themselves very isolated and detached from other mothers. They also find themselves without a voice in a society which fails to understand the psychology of childbirth and which therefore expects mothers to get over their birth experience very quickly.

Consequently, women affected by Postnatal PTSD often find that there is nowhere to turn for support because even other mothers, who have not had traumatising births, can find it hard to understand how affecting a bad birth can be. This can make sufferers lonely and depressed as they often feel they are somehow ‘weaker’ than other women because they are unable to forget their birth experience, despite being told by others to ‘put it behind them’. They may feel incredibly guilty as a result.

This is a terrible burden for women to shoulder and one which profoundly affects their lives. The nature of PTSD means that constant ruminating on the birth experience is beyond the sufferer's control but this is constantly misunderstood, even by health care professionals. Unfortunately, for women suffering from Postnatal PTSD, their detachment from others and the lack of support provided to them can mean that relationships with friends and family may deteriorate. For example, many women end up feeling torn between their desire for more children and their determination to avoid another pregnancy. They may also lose interest in sex and these problems can place a great strain on relationships.

Worryingly, it is suggested that women may also try and avoid medical treatments like smear tests.

For many women, their greatest concern is the day to day difficulties they encounter bonding with their baby who may be viewed as a constant reminder of the trauma they have experienced.

The BTA aims to tackle this isolation by offering women much needed support and showing them that they are far from alone. By working together and providing women with a voice, we hope that we can help change those practices which contribute to Postnatal PTSD.

Isn't this just Post Natal Depression?

No. PTSD can overlap with Post Natal Depression (PND) as some of the symptoms are the same, but, the two illnesses are distinct and need to be treated individually.

Unfortunately, because awareness of this issue is generally poor, many women are wrongly diagnosed with Post Natal Depression and are prescribed medication that may do little, or nothing, to help their situation. Women tell us that they are frequently told by their health care professionals that they should try and 'move on' with their lives or that they should just be grateful that they have a healthy baby. Unfortunately, this type of reaction shows a gross misunderstanding of the nature of Post Natal PTSD and may actually exacerbate the feelings of guilt and isolation that women already feel. Women may then end up with prescriptions for anti-depressants, simply because doctors do not understand the disorder.

However, it is important to note that depression can go hand in hand with Postnatal PTSD, so not everyone is misdiagnosed and if you have been prescribed anti-depressants, this may well be an appropriate course of action for your particular circumstances. If you are concerned about this issue in any way, you must speak to your health professional (e.g. GP or Health Visitor) for further advice. Please show them a copy of our leaflet if they appear to be unaware of Post Natal PTSD or the fact that it requires specialised treatment.


Also remember the wonderful resource Solace for Mothers which provides numerous services for people who have experienced birth trauma.



CfM Blogger


CfM Molly said...

Sorry about the funky formatting! It is taking more energy than I have to spare trying to fix it, so I'm giving up!


Amara Russell said...

I was a baby born in very cruel & traumatic circumstances, and I can assure you that babies do also suffer this. My sotry of living a life that never 'worked', consistent emotional overload, hypersensitivity, nightmares into my 40s, unrecognized pain, and so much frustration at being constantly misunderstood would fill volumes. Nobody ever even thought of connecting these dots. At 40 I began to reach for healing in the alternative/holistic medical community and found a light at the end of a very long dark tunnel. Through many years of trial & error, I learned what worked along with what didn't work, and have become an astute facilitator of healing for others. My message is: there is a light for your path that consists of effective, efficient, and profoundly powerful healing thechniques without mind-altering drugs; you can afford to be very optimistic. You & your baby shared the experience, you can heal & you can help your baby heal so s/he doesn't have to carry this invisible obstacle through life.

Claire Winstone, Ph.D. said...

I really appreciate your setting out the criteria for postnatal PTSD here as it is definitely an under-recognized and more often than not untreated serious problem for mothers.

I do want to emphasize though, that when mothers have birth trauma, almost always their babies do too. The baby went through the same traumatic birth and so has his or her own experience of it, in addition to which the baby experienced all mother's trauma via the stress hormones in her bloodstream up to the moment the cord is severed. Then the baby must attempt to attach to a traumatized mother who may or may not recognize that her baby has also been traumatized.

And on the day following Birth Trauma Awareness Day let me add that there are many, many babies who experience traumatic births that are NOT traumatic for their mothers. Think of the photograph in Frederick Leboyer's book Birth Without Violence in which there are two smiling parents and a smiling doctor, with a baby being held up in the air by its feet screaming. Inductions, epidurals, instrument deliveries and cesareans all have effects on babies: somatic, psychological and even spiritual, as what they are hard-wired to expect in the way of labor and birth is derailed by multiple interventions that disrupt their physical and hormonal processes and create an imprint very different from that created by a gentle, respectful, non-interventive birth. There are millions of traumatized babies in the world, now in adult bodies, and still influenced by that trauma (Saddam Hussein was one of them).

When thinking about addressing birth trauma we need to think on terms of caring for both mother and baby and to recognize not only that when mother is traumatized, so is her baby, but also that one may experience birth trauma while the other does not.

CfM Molly said...

Thank you very much for your comments Amara and Claire. You are right that babies are impacted by birth trauma as well (or, can have birth trauma of their own independent of the mother's trauma or not). I was involved in a discussion with some other childbirth educators recently in which the observation was made that perhaps each baby needs its own doula as well--someone to be looking out for the baby's emotional and safety needs after birth..

Best wishes and thanks for contributing,