Last week I began to address the topic of traumatic births and postpartum PTSD. This week I want to delve more into the emotional experiences of new moms following a traumatic birth. In my work with postpartum clients, I’ve observed that these reactions often come in waves, with some shifts and changes with time and distance from the trauma. Below are some examples culled from my clinical practice. 

Immediate Experiences:  

  • Shock and Disbelief: After what may have been a grueling physical experience of labor, or perhaps a medical emergency, many women report feeling as though they are in  a state of shock following a traumatic birth. Some women describe this as feeling dissociated or disconnected from their body. I’ve had some clients describe feeling as though they are floating outside themselves.
  • Fear: Many women experience intense fear; both for their own physical health and safety, as well as for their babies. This fear is often amplified when women feel their medical providers are not giving them complete information, or are not attending to their physical and emotional needs.
  • Guilt: Guilt is an incredibly common and pernicious experience following a traumatic birth. I see guilt emerge for new moms in many ways. For example, many moms blame themselves for what happened. Several of the moms I’ve worked with scrutinize the choices they made (or that were made for them) during their pregnancy and labor experience, looking for ways in which things could have been different and holding themselves responsible for all bad outcomes.

For some women, the immediate shock and fear fade. For many, these experiences persist and give way to new emotions as they begin to process the trauma.

  • Anger: Many women experience anger. Sometimes this is targeted towards medical providers who they felt were not supportive or made choices that were against what they wanted. Sometimes the anger is focused on themselves or about their entire birth experience.
  • Grief and Mourning: Many moms grieve the experience of having the birth they wanted, or the opportunity for a positive birth experience.
  • Guilt: Guilt continues to be a prominent theme. Many moms feel guilty about having an emotional reaction to the trauma, and feel they should just be focussed on the health and wellbeing of their baby.
  • Resentment: Many moms who have experienced a traumatic birth feel resentment or sadness when they speak to others who’ve had positive birth experiences. I’ve worked with several moms who find it hard to interact with other new moms or hear happy birth stories.
  • Isolation: There are many reasons isolation occurs.  Sometimes it happens because the traumatic birth resulted in persistent medical concerns for mom or baby, requiring a lengthier hospitalization. Many moms also describe feeling out of place in the new mom world where it is typical to share birth stories. They often feel like they cannot, should not, or don’t want to talk about what happened.
  • Worry about bond with baby: Many of the moms I’ve worked with are concerned about their connection with their baby. Sometimes this is because they were unable to have skin to skin contact or feed their baby for a prolonged period. Other times, due to their own medical or emotional complications, they were unable to care for their baby in the days and weeks following birth.
  • Lack of Self Care: I see this a lot in moms who feel guilty about their birth experience. They may over focus on their baby to “correct” the experience. I also see this with moms whose babies are in the NICU who may neglect their own self-care and postpartum recovery, feeling as though they must give full attention to their baby.
  • Post traumatic Symptoms: Common post traumatic experiences include reliving and re-experiencing the trauma, avoidance of triggers, intrusive or scary thoughts, or intense anxiety. Examples include:
    • Avoiding talking about the traumatic birth experience or avoiding thinking about the trauma.
    • Intrusive thoughts or flashbacks about the birth. I’ve had moms report feeling like they can’t stop hearing the sounds of the NICU, or they close their eyes and see or feel the birth experience.
    • Nightmares.
    • Being easily started or alarmed.

It is important to note that many people experience post traumatic symptoms but do not develop postpartum PTSD. A diagnosis of PTSD occurs if there are multiple persistent symptoms which interfere with daily life and functioning. Additionally, I frequently see a delayed onset of PTSD symptoms in my clients who’ve experienced a traumatic birth experience. Sometimes this is because moms feel as though there is no time or space to process what has happened, or are consumed with the responsibilities of newborn care. Other times, an event that occurs later can trigger the traumatic symptoms. Many times post traumatic symptoms reoccur when a mom is considering having another baby. In fact, anxiety about subsequent births is common following a birth trauma.

Stay tuned next week for thoughts on how to navigate a subsequent pregnancy and childbirth following a traumatic birth. That post to be followed by thoughts on ways loved ones and medical providers can support women around birth trauma and postpartum PTSD.