When I had my second daughter, my labor and delivery were extremely fast. I was not prepared for any of it and the whole experience was very frightening. Add to that, in my fear and without pain medication, I was told by doctors attending to me that I needed to stop screaming as I was pushing. I felt invalidated, frustrated and afraid.
Everything you read when preparing for the birth of a baby talks about how “miraculous” and “empowering” it can be. But no one talks about the other experience — birth trauma.
Around 25% to 34% of people who give birth report their birth experience was traumatic. Birth trauma can range from experiencing anything from disrespect from healthcare staff — being told to “stop screaming,” being told to hold your baby in or receiving a medication or procedure you specifically asked not to have, being checked without being asked permission — to experiencing life-threatening events.
The truth is, birth trauma is exceedingly common but under-recognized.
“Trauma can range from a life-threatening situation to feeling like you simply weren’t being heard or validated during your birth experience,” Overbaugh says. “Post-traumatic stress disorder — a formal diagnosis — really requires there to be a near-death experience of yourself or seeing someone else go through this. But you can experience trauma in a lot of different forms. Some ways you can experience trauma may manifest in the form of nightmares, re-experiencing, negative feelings associated with the event, avoidance of triggers that remind you of the event.”
There can be some common elements to a traumatic birth experience, which can include feeling stripped of your dignity/not being validated, a lack of communication between your care team and you, and a lack of caring.
During the birth, things may have happened quickly — you could have had an unexpectedly fast delivery or a complication arose — you could have felt overwhelmed, and/or the situation could have felt dangerous, threatening either you or your baby.
When I attempted to discuss my experience, I was greeted with the too-familiar response of “at least you and the baby are healthy.” This kind of reaction can further serve to make someone feel like their experience didn’t matter.
Overbaugh notes that if someone in your life says they have had a traumatic birth — no matter what they experienced — your job is to validate that experience.
“A lot of trauma can be compounded by experiencing negative emotions such as guilt and shame. This leads women to feel really isolated, defenseless, hopeless, and ill-equipped — like something is wrong with them,” Overbaugh says. “Validation can go a really long way in helping women feel their trauma and not compound it with additional suffering of shame and guilt. Simply listening and avoiding toxic positivity by saying things like, ‘at least the baby is here’ and ‘you should be grateful that…’ toxic positivity is a huge problem and leads to further invalidation, shame, and guilt.”
Untreated and unrecognized birth trauma can lead to postpartum mood disorders, issues with breastfeeding and issues with having future children, but there are things you can do to feel better and process your experience.
Process it with a trusted therapist, a friend or simply a journal.
In some instances, it may make sense to see a professional, especially if you’re experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, are avoiding things that remind you of the trauma, or you are having difficulty sleeping. If you do choose to see a professional, Overbaugh recommends finding someone who specializes in trauma.
“Someone who works with moms, if possible,” she said. “The treatment for trauma is very evidence-based and very effective — it’s prolonged exposure therapy. There is also another evidence-based treatment for trauma called EMDR. It’s essentially exposure and response prevention with some fancy eye movements that you do. Either is great for trauma.”
If you’ve experienced birth trauma or are having a hard time processing your birth experience, you’re not alone. Help is available. Postpartum Support International offers support options for moms and their partners throughout the postpartum period including help finding a therapist, support groups, a text line and more. Overbaugh’s podcast “All the Hard Things” also has resources for dealing with anxiety and shares stories from other moms.
Casey Newman is a mother of two from Green who depends on wine to get her through bathtime and bedtime. She is a maternal and women’s health advocate who volunteers with several birth and maternal rights organizations and has spoken to Congress members about issues affecting moms.