My first pregnancy definitely did not go as I’d expected. After struggling with infertility for a number of years, finding out that I was pregnant was a joyful surprise, and yet wrought with anxiety. 

What if I lose the pregnancy? What if something goes wrong?

As the pregnancy progressed, I slowly began to trust that this was actually happening. I approached the third trimester with anticipation and gratitude. I couldn’t believe it – after everything going sideways with trying to conceive, things were finally going smoothly!

Then, at 26 weeks, my OBGYN noticed that my blood pressure was creeping up. Further testing and monitoring over the weeks confirmed the diagnosis: pre-eclampsia. Though we did our best to manage it with medication and bedrest, ultimately, I had to be induced just shy of 36 weeks. Over the course of 37 hours, we tried various interventions to get my body to begin the labour process.

This was unlike any pregnancy experience any of my friends or family had had. I was terrified.

What was hoped to be a beautiful experience of bringing our first child into the world, turned into an event filled with fear, pain, and chaos. My uterus hyper-stimulated, my placenta abrupted, and my daughter was delivered by emergency c-section. Fortunately, she was able to be resuscitated, and we both spent over a week in hospital as I battled my ongoing pre-eclampsia symptoms and she battled for her life.

Looking back now, I understand more about my experience and why I struggled so much postpartum. I recognize that this birth experience was highly traumatic, and that the months following her birth were spent battling a myriad of symptoms I now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. 

I was not doing well.

And yet, nobody addressed the trauma of the birth with me, or checked in about how I was doing. I was not screened for any kind of postpartum mental health condition. I didn’t know that birth trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder after childbirth was even a thing back then. 

For me, it took years and a career change to becoming a mental health therapist, and then specializing as maternal mental health therapist, for me to fully grasp the gravity of what I went through.

Now, it is my passion and privilege to walk with other women, partners, and parents through their own experiences of birth trauma and perinatal mental health.

So, what is birth trauma?

Birth trauma is when a person experiences their labour or the delivery of their baby as traumatic, marked by intense feelings of fear, terror, pain, distress, invalidation, or loss of control or dignity. No one experience can be defined as a trauma; what matters is how the person perceives the experience. What one person experiences as non-traumatic, another may experience as life-shattering.

In general, there are some experiences that may contribute to a person feeling traumatized in pregnancy, labour, delivery, or postpartum:

  • Medical or mental health problems in pregnancy
  • A history of infertility or perinatal loss
  • Induction
  • A very long labour, or short and very painful labour
  • Poor pain management
  • Feelings of loss of control or choice
  • High levels of medical intervention
  • Birth with forceps
  • Emergency c-section
  • Medical complications during delivery, such as a hemorrhage 
  • Impersonal or dismissive treatment by medical providers
  • Not being listened to or validated
  • Lack of knowledge or explanation of what is happening
  • Lack of informed consent around medical interventions
  • Lack of privacy and dignity
  • Fear for baby’s or own safety
  • Damage done to your body as a result of the birth or medical interventions
  • Stillbirth
  • Birth of a baby with a disability resulting from a traumatic birth
  • Baby’s short or long-term stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)
  • Poor postpartum care
  • Postpartum medical complications
  • Poor social support
  • A history of trauma (for example, in childhood, with a previous birth, or intimate partner violence)

Partners and providers may also experience trauma from witnessing any of these events.

Following a traumatic birth, you might find yourself struggling with:

  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event, sometimes as though it’s happening all over again. This may involve flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts and memories that can cause high levels of distress.
  • Feeling hyper-vigilant, or “on guard”, as though you’re waiting for something awful to happen. You might feel irritable and on-edge, and you may startle easily. You might also worry constantly about your own or your baby’s well-being.
  • Avoiding reminders of the birth, such as feeling unable to talk about what happened, avoiding television shows with birth content, skipping your 6-week postpartum checkup, and avoiding interacting with your baby.
  • Noticing changes in your mood or anxiety levels, such as feeling sad a lot, losing interest in previously enjoyed activities, or struggling with feelings of guilt, shame, or failure. 

Trauma after childbirth is not the same as postpartum depression, though both may co-occur. Often, women who are struggling with post-traumatic stress are treated for depression, which may help some of the symptoms, but will not treat the effects of the trauma.

If you’re finding yourself struggling with your own birth experience or postpartum mental health, please know that this is not your fault, and that whatever you went through is allowed to feel traumatic for you, regardless of what others may think or say. This may not be something you can just “get over”, and this does not make you weak or a “failure” in any way. It may be important to chat with someone who not only has had lived experience with birth trauma, but who is specially trained as a maternal mental health therapist in perinatal trauma. 

At Sage Mental Health, Jennifer and her team have undertaken specialized training in perinatal mental health, birth trauma, and postpartum depression and anxiety, and are eager to hear your story. 

Because your story matters. 

Reach out today to [email protected] to find out more about how we might be able to help.