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Recovering after a Traumatic Birth
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Recovering after a Traumatic Birth

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Although giving birth can be a wonderful experience, some births can be traumatic. You’re not alone in what you have experienced, and there is help out there for recovery.

Although some women find birth a blissful and unproblematic experience, that’s certainly not the case for all. Unfortunately, when it comes to giving birth to your child, a number of things can happen that can make the experience traumatic. 

In fact, 25-34% of women report their birth as traumatic, and 9% of these women experience postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after giving birth. So, it’s important to understand that you’re not alone. 

Although recovering from a traumatic birth can be a challenging experience, there is so much help out there that you can access, and if you’re suffering from postpartum PTSD, that doesn’t make you a bad mum!

At Hiccups & Buttercups, we’ll walk you through:

  • What a traumatic birth is 
  • How to understand your trauma
  • A guide to recovery

What is a traumatic birth?

When it comes to traumatic births, there is no one diagnostic criteria because trauma is subjective, and every mother will have a different experience. For example, while some assume that vaginal births are less traumatic than caesarean births, that’s not strictly true. According to trauma psychologist Charles Figley, the extent to which a delivery is traumatic depends on a few factors. 

Figley argues that the suddenness, level of dangerousness, and overwhelming nature of a birth will determine how traumatic it is. 

Some of the reasons behind a birth being traumatic include:

  • A mother having to undergo an unplanned c-section
  • The baby having to go into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)
  • The requirement of forceps or a vacuum extractor being used during the birth
  • A mother having survived previous trauma such as rape or sexual abuse
  • Experiencing a physical complication or injury during the delivery, such as perineal trauma, or a postpartum haemorrhage
  • Experiencing a lack of support during the delivery
  • A mother feeling like the medical staff didn’t share enough information with them

At Hiccups and Buttercups, we spoke to Dr Claire Plumbly, a Clinical Psychologist, to get her insight on traumatic births; she said: “Remember that what constitutes a  'traumatic' birth is subjective. I've worked with women who felt they'd failed because their birth plan didn't work out or because they had less control over the situation or their body than they are used to.”

Speaking about factors that increase the likeliness of a traumatic birth, Dr Plumbly added: “If you have a history of OCD or sexual assault, then birth can be very triggering for these types of issues and therefore traumatic from that sense. For example, having lots of people in the room, becoming dependent on others temporarily and also the medical check-ups can be distressing.”

Understanding your trauma: Signs and symptoms

Following your child's birth, you will be undergoing massive life changes and adapting to a new schedule and responsibilities. Experiencing trauma on top of this can feel really overwhelming, and you may be left bewildered with a lot of questions. 

It might be helpful to learn that postpartum PTSD can present itself in a number of different ways, and there are signs you can look out for. Some signs and symptoms include:

  • Feeling detached from reality
  • Experiencing anxiety attacks 
  • Experiencing sleep disturbance, be that flashbacks, nightmares or insomnia
  • Feeling hypervigilant
  • Experiencing intrusive thoughts about a past traumatic event 

Postpartum PTSD will typically be diagnosed if a mother experiences these symptoms for at least 30 days after the traumatic experience.

A guide to recovery 

After a traumatic birth, it’s important to give yourself the space and time to process what you have experienced. 

Don’t beat yourself up

It can be easy to turn the blame on yourself and put yourself down, but following a traumatic birth, it’s crucial that you’re kind to yourself. You are incredibly strong and resilient to have survived such an awful experience, so, with that in mind, treat yourself with the love you deserve.

Dr Plumbly says that while difficult thoughts are likely to occur after a traumatic birth, there is a way through. “Be aware that you are likely to get negative thoughts of self-blame, low self-esteem or comparing yourself to other new mums after a traumatic birth." She said, "A good technique for this involves labelling the negative thought and creating some distance between you and the thoughts (i.e. noticing that it's a thought, not a fact). So, instead of saying, "It was my fault", try saying, "I'm noticing that I'm having a thought that I'm useless". 

Further to this, Dr Plumbly added: “You will probably have heightened anxiety, maybe even anxiety attacks whilst your nervous system recovers from the traumatic episode. If you have any calming techniques that work for you, use them now. You can use breathing techniques or something called Dropping Anchor (you can access this here, including audio to support you with this technique).”

Reframe your birth experience

Mothers can find it really difficult to revisit a birth experience if it was traumatic, and it can be upsetting to think that what could have been a beautiful experience was one that caused you pain and upset. That said, it can be helpful to think about the positive elements of your birth. Perhaps you had a supportive nurse; you could even focus on the feelings of joy you experienced before the birth.

According to Dr Plumbly, talking about your birth experience can be really healing: “Talk about what happened if you find this helpful, find someone appropriate to listen to you. This could be a family or friend or a professional. Piece together the order of events with your partner or fill in gaps from the medical staff. Your brain will want to have a narrative of the event with a beginning, middle and end, and this will help it to process what has happened.”

Get back in touch with your body

It’s not uncommon for mothers to feel disconnected from their bodies following a traumatic birth. This can make some mothers feel uncomfortable and detached. Some mothers find that practising yoga, meditation, and taking long, warm baths help them reconnect with their bodies.

A technique that can help you get back in touch with yourself and your body is grounding. Explaining this further, Dr Plumbly said: “If you are getting intrusive thoughts or memories of the traumatic moments, then try using 'grounding' tools. This is when you use an intense sensation like a strong smell or taste to help your body connect with the here and now. Ideas include smelling salts, extra strong mints, a cold flannel on your face, sucking a lemon.”

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is a form of meditation where participants focus on the present moment and can involve breathing methods and guided imagery. Mindfulness can help slow things down and help you more easily navigate through emotional responses.

Dr Plumbly outlines: “Take moments to put on calming music and connect with your baby, choosing to pay less attention to the intrusive thoughts at these moments by using mindfulness.”

Don’t be afraid to reach out for support

The period following a traumatic birth can be very isolating. Still, it’s important to remember that reaching out for help and support can be transformative, and extending beyond close friends and family can be useful, too. After all, despite being well-intentioned, they may not be able to provide you with the support you need. Attending support groups can be helpful here. Telling your story can also help you reassert control over your birth experience.

Dr Plumby says having support is invaluable: “Get as much help with the baby in the first few months of life as you can; it's hard enough functioning after a non-traumatic birth, so support will give you time to rest and process what's happened.”

Reaching out to a professional

There’s no need to be embarrassed if you feel you need to reach out for professional support after experiencing a traumatic birth. Taking care of your mental health should be your number one priority, and therapy can help you navigate negative thoughts and feelings. Finding a counsellor or therapist who specialises in birth trauma will mean that you get the help you need, and by taking care of yourself, you’ll be able to take better care of your baby, too.

There are few common therapies available to treat postpartum PTSD. This includes:

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Group therapy

Dr Plumbly says: “It is normal to get all of the symptoms above (intrusive thoughts and memories, heightened anxiety and negative thoughts) for the first few weeks after a trauma.  If they continue after a month post-birth, then you may be suffering from PTSD, so find a clinical psychologist to support you.”

Final thoughts

Experiencing a traumatic birth can be earth-shattering, and it’s really normal to feel anxious, uncomfortable and in pain following this. Your feelings are completely valid, and it’s important to not be hard on yourself. 

Regardless of the trauma you have experienced, you will be a great mum, and your child is lucky to have such a resilient, strong mother to guide them through life.

If you’d like to reach out to Dr Claire Plumbly directly, you can reach out to her on her website or alternatively contact her on her Instagram page.

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