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What you should know about psychological birth trauma

PTSD from birth affects 30,000 people in the UK each year (Picture: Getty)

Thousands of UK mums experience birth trauma every year – but we don’t talk much about the psychological effects.

So charities and organisations are coming together to change that with Birth Trauma Awareness Week, which runs until July 25.

Midwife Marley, who works with breastfeeding brand Lansinoh, says: ‘Psychological birth trauma is distress experienced by a mother during or after childbirth.

‘It often occurs as a result of a physically traumatic birth but not always. It can also refer to how a woman is left feeling after her birth and often the effects of birth trauma can emerge and continue for some time after the baby is born.

‘Some people describe feeling fearful, helpless or unheard during their birth experience. Shock, panic, guilt or emotional numbness are other words that have been used to describe how they felt. Birth trauma can lead to panic attacks.’

Lesley Gilchrist, a registered midwife and co-founder of My Expert Midwife, explains that in some cases, it can be so severe, it becomes post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Though PTSD was formerly known as shellshock and linked to WW1 soldiers, it’s a very real possibility that new mums can experience this after a traumatic birth.

Although it’s currently unresearched, a 2017 study estimates that 4% of births lead to PTSD, which can last weeks, months or even years.

‘It has not been until relatively recently that PTSD has been recognised as a condition suffered by many after childbirth, with research estimating as many as 30,000 sufferers from birth trauma every year in the UK,’ Lesley tells us.

Some symptoms may be similar to postnatal depression (PND) but Marley says PND can occur regardless of whether a birth is traumatic or not and the two conditions should not be confused.

So what does birth trauma look like?

Experiences of birth trauma will differ from person to person, but there are some common themes.

Lesley explains: ‘It can cause flashbacks, nightmares and guilt about not enjoying parenthood. Other symptoms include feelings of panic and being hypervigilant over baby.

‘You are more likely to be affected by birth trauma if your birth didn’t go as you imagined, or if you experienced procedures which frightened you during your labour, birth or in the immediate postnatal period.’

The causes can be vast, but Lesley says the following are common:

  • Having an assisted delivery using forceps or ventouse
  • Having medical interventions that you didn’t think you would need
  • Going to the operating theatre for an emergency caesarean section
  • Having an ineffective epidural or being unable to access an epidural or pain relief when you felt that you needed it
  • A lack of privacy and dignity during care procedures. These include simple things such as people talking behind curtains about your care and not involving you
  • Feeling like events have overtaken your control
  • You or your baby were sick or ill during or after the birth and you feared for yours or their life

Dealing with birth trauma, can be ‘debilitating’, Lesley adds.

She says: ‘It can prevent you from enjoying parenthood and family life and affect how you feel about your baby and future pregnancies.’

If you are struggling, Lesley advises contacting the hospital where you received care during the pregnancy to request a debrief to help you get a better understanding of what happened.

‘This is an appointment for you to sit with a midwife or doctor and go through your notes to examine the events which caused your trauma,’ she says.

‘Equally, you may feel as though you want further investigations surrounding what happened. This can be done by contacting your hospital’s Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS).’

Counselling and therapy can be offered too by a GP, as this mental health condition shouldn’t be brushed off.

Due to our cultural shyness and even shame around mental health issues, it’s important to recongise that birth trauma is a real condition – that sense of shame could be the very thing that stops someone from seeking help.

To chat about mental health in an open, non-judgmental space, join our Mentally Yours Facebook group.

Follow us on Twitter at @MentallyYrs.


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