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Surviving & Thriving After Birth Trauma

You're not alone, Mama.

Since becoming a postpartum doula two years ago, I've come across so many new mothers who have had traumatic birth experiences. I've been surprised and saddened to learn just how prevalent it is. I had no idea until I entered the birth community and started hearing mothers' stories.

Birth trauma is varied and encompasses many elements. Birth trauma is distress experienced by the mother during or after childbirth. It can be emotional, psychological, physical or a combination. Since it is an experience - and we all experience things differently - it is subjective based on the mother's viewpoint.

Events that are traumatic to one mother may not be traumatic to another. However, most of us can agree that some experiences are universally heart-wrenching. A stillbirth, a placental abruption, your newborn sustaining a birth injury - these are terrifying things for any mother.

Caesarean sections are quite common (about 30% of births) but how women feel about them is diverse. Some mothers elect to have a surgical birth: they find comfort in its scheduled predictability. Other mothers may not plan for a C-section but are okay with the outcome should they need one. Some mothers are distressed by a surgical birth when they were really planning for a vaginal one. The term "emergency C-section" just sounds traumatic and frequently is for those that have one.

A birth that doesn't live up to its expectations can be difficult to process and accept, even if it went smoothly and was medically uncomplicated. Medically uncomplicated does not necessarily mean emotionally uncomplicated for the mother.

We go into our labors and deliveries with a whole history of feelings, coping strategies, opinions, philosophies, and interpretations of our life events. If a woman feels that her birth was traumatic, it was traumatic. That is her perception and perception is reality.

Studies have shown that up to 45% of new mothers report having a traumatic birth. That's almost half of all mothers! When I first read this statistic, it sounded way too high to me. But then I jogged back in my memory to the women I've met over the past couple of years.

There's the new mom who labored for 72 hours then had her baby by emergency C-section.

There's the new mom who had a precipitous birth on her kitchen floor.

There's the new mom who developed a serious wound infection and almost died.

There's the new mom whose premature baby spent her first few months in the NICU.

There's the new mom who was so paralyzed by postpartum depression that she couldn't care for her baby or herself.

That last one was me. My labor and delivery was trauma-free. It was the post-birth experience that was so damaging. I wish I had known to prepare for it in some way.

I don't write these things to scare you. Yes, they are scary. Absolutely. I write them to prepare you for the possibility of going through a difficult time yourself.

Birth trauma is more common than we'd like to think. There's no predicting how your birth will go or how you'll react to different elements of it. What you can control is preparing for your birth experience. You may not need to access what you've prepared for, but having it in your back pocket is worth the effort. And if you don't need to access it for yourself, you'll be armed with the knowledge to help a friend who may need your guidance down the road.

Here are some ways to prepare for, survive and thrive after birth trauma.

Before Birth
  • Take a childbirth education class so you'll know what to expect.

  • Choose a prenatal team you really trust and click with.

  • Ask questions. Get all the facts. Collect information from your obstetrician, midwife, doula, lactation consultant. Knowledge is power.

  • Talk with trusted friends and family about their birth experiences. Ask them to be real with you - no sugar coating.

  • Schedule a Postpartum Planning Session. It will help make your fourth trimester feel more organized, rewarding and less daunting. Part of the planning includes putting safeguards in place for your postpartum mental health.

  • If you've experienced trauma earlier in your life, seek out a mental health professional to help you through it. Untreated previous trauma can make you more susceptible to birth trauma.

During Birth
  • Hire a birth doula. She'll offer physical and emotional support, facilitate communication between you and the medical staff, and explain procedures. She'll empower you to advocate for your needs and will support your partner, too.

  • Have a birth plan but also be open to changing it up if things don't go as planned. It's important to have realistic expectations that honor your priorities and values. Don't beat yourself up if the birth plan changes because it's not your fault. Repeat: it's not your fault.

After Birth
  • Accept help from your friends and family. Say yes when they offer to drop off a meal or help out around the house. If they've come over just to hold the baby, barter snuggles for a round of vacuuming or a homemade casserole.

  • Be okay with saying no to visitors. Prioritize your physical and mental recovery and reserve time for bonding with your baby.

  • Talk to your partner about what happened. Chances are they are feeling traumatized by what they witnessed and are worried about you, too.

  • Hire a postpartum doula. She'll provide baby care education, birth story listening, hands-on assistance, comfort measures for your healing, breastfeeding guidance, emotional support, and help with household tasks. She'll help you catch up on your sleep.

  • Attend postnatal medical appointments. Be honest with your providers about your mental and physical well-being. Ask for details about what happened during the birth to help you gain some clarity and closure.

  • Connect with a support group through Postpartum Support International or your local PSI chapter. Hearing other mothers' experiences may help you feel less alone.

  • Share your story. Saying it aloud or writing it down will help you process your feelings and begin the healing process.

  • Talk to a maternal mental health professional to work through your trauma and develop coping skills.

Mamas, I'd love to hear how you've coped with your birth trauma. What's been helpful? Drop me a line.

XO, SnarkMom


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