When Birth Is Traumatic

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For many, childbirth is a time of great happiness and celebration. Welcoming a new baby is often a time of excitement, exhaustion, joy and brings great hope for the future.

But what happens when birth is traumatic? 

It’s easy to understand that trauma has taken place when a new parent is dealing with a physical injury to themselves or their baby. However, physical trauma is not the only type of trauma that new parents may experience.

Emotional trauma can be just as devastating. It may also last much longer than physical trauma due to a lack of awareness and diagnosis. While the symptoms of physical trauma are often easy to spot; bruising, bleeding, swelling, etc. The emotional signs of birth trauma may not be as easily recognized.

Causes of Emotional Trauma

While the cause of emotional trauma will vary from person to person, common causes may include:

  • Traumatic experience during pregnancy
    • Hyperemesis
    • Threat of miscarriage
    • Abnormal genetic testing
    • The negative experience of fertility treatment
    • Traumatic conception – rape, physical abuse
    • Loss of a loved one during pregnancy
  • Traumatic experience during labor or birth
    • Preeclampsia
    • Vaginal trauma
    • Feeling powerless and unheard
    • Unplanned cesarean
    • Prolapsed cord
    • Instrumental delivery – vacuum or forceps

The severity of the trauma isn’t a predictor of if you will feel that your experience is traumatic. It is how you perceive the trauma that is the most powerful indicator. On the outside, it may not look like the experience was traumatic to others who were present.

Symptoms of Emotional Trauma

While the symptoms of emotional trauma will vary from person to person, common symptoms may include:

  • Feeling as if:
    • Something bad is about to happen.
    • The pregnancy or birth trauma is happening again
  • Feeling detached from the pregnancy or birth experience
  • Nightmares or flashbacks to the pregnancy or birth trauma
  • Avoiding
    • People associated with the pregnancy or birth trauma
    • Places associated with the pregnancy or birth trauma
    • Feelings associated with the pregnancy or birth trauma

As you move through your recovery, you may experience some of the symptoms listed above. This is a normal part of the emotional healing process. However, if the symptoms become persistent or consume your thoughts on a regular basis, it may be a sign that something more is going on.

Postpartum Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

When trauma is severe or you find yourself unable to process the traumatic experience, you may experience postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder. According to PSI, approximately 9% of new parents will experience postpartum PTSD.

In addition to the above symptoms those who are experienced postpartum PTSD may also experience:

  • Hypervigilance
  • Problems with sleeping
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Startle easily

When the symptoms start to interfere with daily life and your ability to function on a day to day basis, it is time to seek help. The good news is that PPTSD is treatable.

Emotional trauma after birthThe first step to treatment is letting your provider know that you have a problem.

Once your provider is aware of your condition they may suggest the following treatment options.

For those who wish to avoid medication as the first line of treatment, therapy with a qualified practitioner may be a good option. The approach to treatment for postpartum PTSD is different than that of postpartum depression.


Dr. Emily Cook Ph.D. from Maryland explains:

“. . . therapy definitely provides relief and healing. Involving the father in treatment through couples therapy is a powerful part of the work. We tell and retell the birth story, going back in memory by honoring the intensity of experience and reframing positive elements and going forward to the present by paying attention to all the ways the trauma is impacting their bodies, minds, emotions, expectations, and interactions.”

For some individuals, medication may be recommended as the first line of treatment. Many providers recommend the use of SSRI medication or selective serotonin receptor inhibitors. Common SSRIs include:

  • Zoloft
  • Paxil
  • Celexa
  • Prozac

Together, you and your healthcare provider or psychiatrist will work to find the best treatment options for you.

Offering Support

When it comes to supporting someone who is experiencing emotional trauma or postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder, patience and understanding are key. We don’t have to understand the trauma in order to support the person experiencing it.

For those who have had traumatic experiences, re-telling their story allows them to begin the healing process.  Some may find that they need to tell their story over and over. Even to the same people who have already heard it.  As someone who is hearing this story either for the first time or the 5th, it is important to validate the thoughts, emotions and possibly anger that is being expressed.  Even if you don’t remember the experience in the same way.

Finding Help

If you or someone you know is suffering from a traumatic birth experience, you can find more information and support in the links below.

Solace for Mothers

WellMamma Oregon

Postpartum Support International

PTSD Helpline

In Tucson:

Postpartum Depression Coalition

Arizona’s Crisis Response Network – Call (520) 622-6000

Tucson Providers for Mental Health Care 

Arizona Warmline Call – 888-434-MOMS

Here at Tucson Doulas, we have the resources to help clients seek the support they need. Your doulas are here, day or night to help and we encourage you to reach out so we can help you take the first steps to recovery and relief following a traumatic experience.

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