Sometimes birth is a beautiful, positive, empowering experience…and sometimes it’s not. For many parents, physical and emotional distress during birth can turn what they envisioned as one of the most joyful experiences of their lives into a devastating event that complicates their entrance into parenthood.
If you’re dealing with the distress of a traumatic delivery, know that you are not alone. With up to 45% of births being impacted by trauma, this topic deserves space in conversations surrounding birth and efforts to support new parents and birthing people.
Here are some important things to remember when recovering from a traumatizing delivery:
The Impacts of a Traumatic Birth Experience
While no two births are the same, and the impacts of a distressing delivery may vary from parent to parent, some common issues parents face after birth trauma include:
- Difficulty bonding with the baby
- Feelings of guilt
- A sense of failure or inadequacy
- A sense of helplessness or powerlessness
- Fear of future pregnancies or births
- Anxiety or panic attacks
- Body distrust
- Irritability or anger
- Difficulty sleeping
- Nightmares, flashbacks, or intrusive thoughts about the details of the birth
- Avoidance of people, places, situations, thoughts, or emotions associated with the birth
Take time to identify how your birth trauma impacts your day-to-day life, and don’t be hard on yourself for struggling – the challenges you’re facing after a traumatic birth make sense given what you’ve been through. Consider telling someone you trust (like your partner or someone on your birth team) about the specific things you’re dealing with to get help in finding the right types of support in your recovery process (like counseling, support groups, physical therapy, lactation services, postpartum doula support, etc.). As isolated as birth trauma can make you feel, remember that you don’t have to go through it alone. (For more information on perinatal post-traumatic stress and birth trauma support resources, visit www.postpartum.net)
Birth Trauma Looks Different for Everyone
Birth trauma is a uniquely subjective experience – it’s not defined by the specific events that occurred during your birth, but more by how you felt during those events. While there are many perinatal events that increase the risk of trauma (like NICU admissions, infant loss, obstetric violence, unplanned interventions, etc.), your birth doesn’t necessarily need to be labeled as life-threatening or catastrophic to be considered distressing or traumatic.
What felt traumatic for you may not feel traumatic to someone else, and that’s okay. This is not a reflection of your resilience or ability; it’s just the way trauma functions. Birth trauma occurs when your nervous system perceives any aspects of your birth as a threat to your (or your baby’s) physical or emotional well-being, which puts your nervous system into “survival mode,” impacts the way your brain processes the information around you, and interferes with your ability to cope in the moment.
Acknowledging that your birth experience was traumatic might be a challenging thing to do, and you may question whether your birth experience “counts” as trauma. The short answer is: If you feel that your birth was distressing in any way, then it was. No one else gets to decide that for you. Give yourself permission to talk openly about your birth experience when it feels safe. And remember, the thoughts and feelings you have about your birth experience are always valid.
You Are Not a Failure
You might feel a sense of guilt or inadequacy after a traumatic delivery, believing you somehow caused your birth trauma or failed at your first “job” as a parent. Some common themes surrounding failure within birth trauma include:
- Not giving birth the way you wanted or planned for
- Difficulty managing pain during birth
- Difficulty advocating for yourself during birth
- Inability to protect your baby from distress
- Regret about interventions used during birth
- Complications with breastfeeding
- Relying on others to care for your baby
While it can be easy to spiral into a pattern of self-defeating thoughts – like “I didn’t take good enough care of my body during pregnancy; My body is defective; I wasn’t educated enough on childbirth; I made the wrong choices; It’s all my fault” – it’s important to recognize that birth trauma is not something you can fully control.
Practice self-compassion by recognizing that birth trauma can happen to anyone, during any birth, in any setting, with any provider. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel disappointed about your experiences, but that you are not to blame and you did the best you could with what you had at the time.
A Safe and Healthy Baby Isn’t All That Matters
When your birth experience turns into something you must physically or mentally survive, there’s so much more to consider outside of the positive outcome of a safe and healthy baby. You’ve probably heard numerous people say things like, “At least the baby is okay,” “You had your baby, and that’s all that matters,” or “It’s all over now, so you can move on and focus on enjoying your baby.” While their intentions may be good and this may not seem like a harmful mindset, it can make your healing process more difficult.
Receiving comments like these can invalidate the distress you experienced during birth, instill a belief that your physical health and safety aren’t a priority, minimize the emotional healing process you must endure on top of the already difficult transition into parenthood, and pressure you to suppress important thoughts or emotions by only focusing on the “positive” outcomes of your birth (like a safe and healthy baby). It’s particularly difficult to navigate for parents whose babies didn’t survive or were born with lifelong injuries, disabilities, and illnesses – parents who didn’t have the positive outcome of a “safe and healthy” baby.
Consider reflecting on how you want to respond to these comments, for example:
- “I’m so glad that my baby is okay, but my birth was a distressing experience for both of us and I need to be able to process how all of this impacted me, too.”
- “I appreciate you trying to comfort me, but sometimes those comments leave me feeling like I shouldn’t be struggling with any of this.”
- “There are a lot of difficult thoughts and feelings about my birth that I still need to work through, and sometimes these comments make that hard for me to do.”
Remind yourself that you matter too, your entire experience deserves to be recognized, and you are worthy of being seen, heard, and supported.
It's Okay (and Important) to Set Boundaries
As time passes, the distressing details of your birth can begin to fade from others’ memories while keeping a tight grip on yours. Birth trauma is, unfortunately, one of those things that tend to be out of sight out of mind, especially when others see you or your baby healing, recovering, and “doing okay.” Regardless of how much time has passed since your birth, many things might serve as heavy reminders of the trauma you’ve experienced – like pregnancy or birth announcements, baby shower invitations, positive birth stories, birthdays/anniversaries, etc. You might find that you want to avoid these triggers at all costs, but feel conflicted about not wanting to disappoint anyone.
Let yourself be open and honest with others about how these scenarios may be difficult for you and give yourself permission to set boundaries around them.
- Give feedback on how you want to be informed (if at all) of any pregnancy or birth announcements
- Reframe feelings of guilt for declining baby-related events into a sense of empowerment for being aware of your triggers and prioritizing your needs
- Consider lightening your schedule or workload around significant dates/anniversaries and use that time to hold space for any difficult thoughts and feelings that arise
Setting boundaries around your birth trauma recovery is an important step toward recognizing your needs, advocating for yourself, and feeling empowered throughout your healing journey.
Grief and Gratitude Can Coexist
Like many parents who have been impacted by a traumatic delivery, you might feel like you’ve been robbed of certain “firsts” with your baby and find yourself grieving the loss of those missed opportunities. Some examples of these losses are:
- Not feeling contractions or experiencing the physical aspects of labor
- Not being awake when your baby was born
- Not being the first one to meet your baby or hear their first cry
- Not being the first one to hold, soothe, or feed your baby
- Not getting immediate skin-to-skin
- NICU admission/going home without your baby
- Staying in the hospital/not being present for your baby’s first days at home
It can feel confusing to navigate your grief over these losses while also being grateful for the opportunities you are able to have, but it’s important to remember that grief and gratitude do not cancel each other out. You can feel both at the same time, and you are not a bad or ungrateful parent if you always feel some sadness about your birth experience. As you hold space for your grief over these missed firsts, allow yourself to also feel grateful for the firsts you can have and consider celebrating them through meaningful ways – such as journaling, creating photo albums, writing letters to your baby, creating special rituals with your family, etc. While the grief over your missed firsts may stay with you forever, so can the gratitude for the firsts that you do get to experience.
Remember that recovering from birth trauma is not a linear process, it’s a different experience for everyone, you deserve to be supported through it, and the thoughts and feelings you have about your birth are valid. Your story matters, and with help, you can heal.
Content shared is not equivalent to and should not be used as a substitute for mental health treatment. This site is intended for informational purposes only and does not provide medical advice. Please consult your physician or other health-care professional.
This site is intended for informational purposes only and does not provide medical advice. Please consult your physician or other health-care professional.