According to a 2018 study, it is estimated up to 45 percent of birthing persons report experiencing trauma during labour or childbirth (Beck et al., 2018). It is important to note that this number is likely higher, as many cases go unreported and undiagnosed, due to the stigma many new parents feel about how they are meant to feel about the birth of a child and parenthood.
What is birth trauma?
If at any point during the labour and birth process, a person feels they are physically or emotionally unsafe, they are at a higher risk for developing birth trauma. For example, those who have felt their needs were not respected or provided by the health care team. For an individual with pre-existing mental health issues (such as anxiety or trauma/PTSD) this can be especially triggering. Secondly, if there is a medical intervention or health-related stress experienced during the labour or delivery, wherein the birthing person or baby is injured or in need of additional support such as NICU care, the birthing person and/or their partners can be traumatized.
How does birth trauma affect new parents?
Trauma continues to impact a birthing person and/or their family members after the birth and can lead to intrusive thoughts, recurring dreams, and distressing memories. When the expectations of caring for a newborn are added, there can be great difficulty with coping and/or bonding with the baby. This kind of distress requires support and benefits from therapy to help process the difficult emotions.
What kinds of birth trauma therapy are available?
Mental health care providers who are informed in trauma-specific care and perinatal and postpartum support can help a person and their family to process and heal from birth trauma. With the support of a family physician, medication along with therapy can also help to provide effective treatment. Through the process of therapy, new coping skills can be taught and implemented as well as provide an opportunity to work through an understanding of the events that led to the trauma. As a result, relationships that have been impacted by the trauma can also begin to strengthen and heal.
Modalities such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Narrative Therapy (NT), Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) can all provide effective therapeutic approaches for birth trauma. Additionally, group therapy has been shown to be highly effective for new parents who are feeling alone or even guilty about their birth trauma as a way to normalize their feelings. Finally, birth trauma impacts relationships as well and couples therapy has been shown to be helpful in addition to individual therapy in order to help partners cope with the stress that occurs after witnessing loved ones experience a traumatic event.
What to do if you are worried about birth trauma?
If you and/or your partner are concerned that you have experienced birth trauma (which can be present up to two years following the birth of a child), reach out to a mental health care provider with experience in this area. Also, be sure to connect with your family doctor for a fulsome diagnostic screening process. Community-based new parent groups can also provide excellent healing and ongoing support.
Beck, C. T., Watson, S., & Gable, R. K. (2018). Traumatic Childbirth and Its Aftermath: Is There Anything Positive? The Journal of Perinatal Education, 27(3), 175–184. https://doi.org/10.1891/1058-1243.27.3.175
Louise Gleeson is a Registered Therapist (Qualifying) with College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario. One of Louise’s areas of interest includes perinatal trauma. Louise uses evidence-based modalities and an integrative approach in order to help her clients receive treatment that is personalized to their unique needs.