Even under the best of circumstances, giving birth can be physically and emotionally challenging. But for some women, the experience can be so traumatic that it affects their mental health and ability to care for themselves and their babies.
"Childbirth can be traumatic whether you have a good experience or a bad one," says Qrystel Clages, LCMHC, a clinical mental health counselor at University of Utah Health. "But each woman's reaction will be different."
What is childbirth trauma?
There is no single definition for what's considered a traumatic birth. "Two women could have the same birth experience but have different outcomes," Clages says. And there is a very wide range of experiences that can lead to postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trauma can include anything from your birth not going how you'd hoped for (such as an unplanned C-section) to fear that you or your baby isn't going to live.
How to recognize postpartum PTSD
"There is often an overlap between postpartum depression (PPD) and postpartum trauma," Clages says. "If you had a traumatic birth, it's very likely you'll experience symptoms of PPD." Seeking out maternal mental health services can be very helpful to women experiencing these conditions.
The range of symptoms associated with PPD or postpartum PTSD is as varied as the experiences that lead to those conditions. If you or a loved one has recently given birth—regardless of the circumstances—be on the lookout for signs of mental health disorders.
Symptoms of postpartum depression may include:
- overwhelming feelings
- negative feelings about yourself or your ability to care for your child
- not eating
- not able to sleep
- suicidal thoughts (Call the SafeUT crisis line for help, 833-372-3388)
Symptoms of postpartum PTSD may include:
- avoidance of people, places, or situations associated with the trauma
- difficulty sleeping
- increasing anxiety or panic attacks
- re-experiencing the trauma (including nightmares and flashbacks)
- worsening depression.
Who's most at risk of postpartum PTSD?
Any real or perceived birth trauma can lead to postpartum PTSD. The condition can affect any woman who has recently given birth. A woman who's experienced previous trauma—including sexual abuse—is at especially high risk.
Experiences during childbirth that can trigger PTSD include:
- baby needing to go to the NICU
- cord wrapped around baby's neck
- feeling powerless or not in control (such as being examined without your consent)
- lack of support or reassurance during delivery
- unplanned cesarean section
- severe physical complications from birth, such as hemorrhaging, unplanned hysterectomy, or perineal tearing
- use of vacuum extractor or forceps during birth
Why birth trauma therapy is important
Too often, women suffer in silence after a traumatic birth experience. "They may feel ashamed or feel like a failure as a mother," Clages says. "And often, everyone around them is so focused on the baby that no one stops to ask how the mother is doing or what she needs."
Clages urges women experiencing postpartum depression, anxiety, or trauma to seek out the help they need. Postpartum Support International offers multiple resources for new mothers and can connect you with support groups and individual counseling, both online and in person.
You can recover from and move past your childbirth trauma with the right treatment and support.