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Let’s talk birth trauma

Thursday 28 September 2023

Birth trauma can be incredibly difficult to talk about, but talking can be a lifeline to so many. We sat down with Kerry from Barefaced Birth to find out more.

Understanding the label

Birth trauma is still not talked about enough between friends, social media, on the news, and even in the medical profession. It can be confusing to understand what birth trauma is, let alone what help there is out there to support those who may have experienced a traumatic birth. 

We may have experienced a difficult or distressing birth but do not wish to use the label, ‘birth trauma’. Yet we might still feel heavy emotions linked to our birth, along with some physical and mental symptoms as a result of our birth experience. 

You don’t have to use the word ‘trauma’ if you don’t want to. It does not take away the feelings and emotions you are feeling after the birth of your child. Trauma is just a label. You may have felt your birth was difficult or distressing and however you describe it is ok. 

The Birth Trauma Association (BTA) defines birth trauma as a shorthand term for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Around 20-30% of women and birthing people describe their birth as traumatic1 and studies suggest that between 1.5-5% may experience PTSD following birth2

Birth can be a beautiful, empowering and transformative experience for some and for others it may be traumatic, distressing, or a scary experience resulting in feelings of pain, anger, and grief. 

This could be as a result of interventions, birth plans changing, feelings of fear, not feeling listened to, heard or supported, and even loss of control during birth. For some, they may have imagined how their birth would feel and look, however it have not have turned out the way they imagined, which can contribute to the trauma itself. 

The Symptoms of Birth Trauma

Birth is an individual and unique experience as are the emotions, feelings and symptoms we may experience as a result of a traumatic, difficult or distressing birth. 

Our brain works really hard to keep us protected at all times. When we experience a traumatic event, it triggers the emotional centre of the brain to release a fight or flight response, which in turn becomes hyper-aroused and shuts down all other brain functions. This means that our brain is not able to process and file this experience as a memory in the past like it would with other experiences or events. 

All the feelings and emotions we felt during the experience become biologically linked to that memory/ experience and this experience becomes what I like to describe as ‘stuck’ in our brain. We may then be triggered back to our experience by something such as a conversation, a photo or even a word. We may then experience all those feelings and emotions that we felt during that event which then re-traumatises us. This further encodes our emotion centre and it goes round and round in a cycle each time we are triggered. 

Not everyone will experience the same symptoms or feelings and it will be individual for each person. Some symptoms may include: 

  • Tearfulness 
  • Flashbacks of the memory or event 
  • Anxiety / panic 
  • Hyper-vigilance 
  • Irritability 
  • Trouble sleeping 
  • Relationship changes 
  • Intrusive thoughts 
  • Anger 
  • Numbness 
  • Difficulty bonding 

Birth trauma is not limited to birth

We often focus on the label of ‘birth trauma’, however it is not limited to just birth nor is it limited to the person giving birth. We may also experience trauma during pregnancy or during the postnatal period. 

These may come in the form of (but not limited to): 

  • A difficult pregnancy 
  • Pregnancy loss 
  • NICU or hospital stay 
  • A postnatal journey 
  • Breast/chest feeding experience 
  • Any event that you may have experienced as difficult or traumatic

Sometimes partners experience birth trauma from witnessing their partner experience a traumatic birth.  According to studies, between 0% to 8% of men attending their child’s birth may have experience PTSD symptoms depending on the symptoms being measured3

How to heal from a traumatic or difficult experience

Sometimes we may need a little time to heal and sometimes we may need some support to help us heal and move forward. Living with these symptoms day-to-day can be really difficult, painful and exhausting, and no-one should have to feel like that. 

Often we may feel alone and unable to explain how we feel; I have experienced this myself first hand which is why I trained in the 3 Step Rewind Process to help and support others in healing and moving forward from their birth experience. 

Support may come in the form of: 

  • Talking to someone, a friend or someone you trust in a safe and open space 
  • Talking to your GP or midwife and finding out your options for support
  • Support groups – locally or online 
  • Talking to a therapist who is trained in trauma
  • Seeking support from a 3 Step Rewind Practitioner who specialised in birth trauma
  • Support from online resources such as The Birth Trauma Association, Make Birth Better, PTSD UK, and Mind 

Experiencing a birth trauma or any other traumatic pregnancy or postnatal experience can sometimes make us feel alone, lost and scared but please know that you are not alone. Take each day as it comes and know there lots of support out there to help you heal. 

Whether it is a traumatic or difficult birth, pregnancy or postnatal experience, The 3 Step Rewind Process can help you to process your experience and help to ease and lift those feelings, helping you to move forward. 

      About the author

      Kerry Fountain

      Hypnobirthing & Antenatal Instructor teaching in person in Nottingham and online.


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