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Childbirth PTSD

Childbirth PTSD: identifying the causes and symptoms of birth trauma

“How was your birth?”

You were probably asked about it often after your baby was born.

You probably think about it often. I’m sure you remember  -vividly – every birth you have had.

I have found that most women, be they 28 or 88, remember childbirth as if it were yesterday. For most, it’s the most profound and memorable experience of their lives.

New moms get asked about it time after time after their baby arrives. (Here in the store we sometimes ask moms how their births went, if we knew them throughout their pregnancies.)

Often moms just want to talk about the birth of their baby and bring it up themselves.

Sometimes because it was so wonderful.

Sometimes because it was so awful.

This week a mom came in to see me for breastfeeding help. She was so unsure of herself, and convinced she was doing things wrong and that something needed to be” fixed”.

It turned out that everything was fine. Her baby was thriving and she was thriving – physically. We talked more and it turned out she had had a very difficult labour and delivery. And it left her shaky and unsure of herself.

This is very common after a particularly difficult birth experience. Moms’ confidence in themselves and their bodies is shaken and it can spill over into their sense of capacity as a mom.

Most moms in our Western culture are very insecure about their mothering because we have few mothering role models. There are so many conflicting philosophies and approaches and few of us grew up surrounded by babies and nursing moms.

A difficult birth can contribute to that insecurity, and some times to postpartum depression.

And some births are so long, so scary, so brutal, and sometimes so tragic, that they remain lodged in painful memory, years and even decades after.

Perhaps you had one of those births. Or your own mother might have had one, or a friend of yours might have.

Births like these can be classified as seriously traumatic. Odds are the mom, and those who were witness to this kind of birth, may be dealing not just with Postpartum Depression but with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder -PTSD.

PTSD  is mostly spoken of in regard to soldiers and first responders, and those experiencing war and violence.

But a new awareness is growing that says there are experiences in the course of “normal” life events that are legitimately identified as traumatic, leading to PTSD. And, as mentioned above,  some women’s childbirth experiences are terrifying to the degree that they emerge  seriously traumatized.

Just as it took decades for society to recognize that Postpartum Depression is not something that you just “snap out of”, it is now being recognized that PTSD after an extreme childbirth experience is real, and the mom (and witnesses) cannot just “get over it”.

Whether you are thinking about your own childbirth experiences, or someone you know and care about, its helpful to know the causes and symptoms of childbirth PTSD so you can either help yourself, or be supportive to someone you know.

Potential Causes of Childbirth PTSD include:

  • death or threatened death of self, baby and, for witnesses, the mother and/or baby
  • actual or threatened serious injury
  • actual or threatened sexual violation  – rough, insensitive, and invasive treatment by healthcare providers is experienced by some women as rape
  • prolapsed umbilical cord
  • unplanned  emergency C-section
  • use of vacuum extractor or forceps to deliver the baby
  • baby going to Neonatal Intensive Care Unit
  • feelings of powerlessness, poor communication and/or lack of support and reassurance during the delivery
  • women who have experienced a previous trauma, such as rape or sexual abuse, are also at a higher risk for experiencing postpartum PTSD.

Symptoms of Childbirth PTSD include:

  • distressing and recurring, sometimes intrusive memories about the event
  • nightmares
  • flashbacks (when you are actually reliving the event, not just thinking about it)
  • altered sense of reality – feeling like you’re living in a dream
  • inability to remember important aspects of the birth
  • avoidance of thoughts, feelings or conversations associated with the birth
  • avoidance of activities, places, or people associated with the birth (sometimes including the baby)
  • problems with concentration
  • sleep disturbance beyond waking throughout the night to feed the baby.
  • hypervigilance.- always being on guard
  • difficulty bonding with the baby
  • fear of breastfeeding
  • pervasive negative emotional state, e.g., fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame
  • markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities
  • feeling of detachment or estrangement from others
  • persistent inability to experience positive emotions

This is certainly a disturbing list of symptoms and you can imagine how difficult it is to meet the challenges of parenting when you are having these symptoms

Statistics vary, but the estimated rate of full-on childbirth PTSD in Canadian women when there is no previous history of trauma, depression or abuse is between 3 and 8%,. The rates are significantly higher if previous trauma, depression, or abuse have been experienced by the mom.

That’s a lot of women!

And Childbirth PTSD can last for years.

The good news is that Childbirth PTSD CAN BE TREATED!!!!! Some women come out stronger and more self assured once they heal and come through it.

If you think you are experiencing it, you must speak up about it and get the help you need. Telling those who love you and care about you that this is happening and asking for help and support is a great first step. Even if this is years after the birth.

Talk to your midwife or doctor if you feel good about them, or the Public Health Nurse and they can refer you to counsellors and support groups.

If someone you care about is experiencing stress after childbirth, be a non-judgmental listening ear.  Encourage them to talk about the experience and their feelings and to GET HELP!


PS: I personally had two births that did no go at all as I had planned them and  I had little control over what happened to me. I thankfully did not experience PTSD because I had supportive loved ones and I was able to freely talk about it. I believe I had mild Postpartum Depression but was good at self care and asking for help, and got through it well.

It is so important to be honest about how you are feeling and reach out for support. You, and your baby, deserve it!

For further understanding about this, here is a very excellent article on Childbirth PTSD.
Here is a very supportive website from the Birth Trauma Association.


Judy Banfield

I’m Judy Banfield and I’m here to help you feel better about yourself as a person and more confident and secure as a parent.

In my 30+ years of working with babies, young children and parents, I have learned that valuing and treasuring and deeply knowing yourself gives you the foundation to more confidently and joyfully, love, treasure, teach and guide your children.

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