You just witnessed something that has changed you forever. The birth of a child can be a moment of joy and relief, but can also be riddled with other emotions. It can be difficult to talk about these emotions – aren’t I supposed to feel amazed, overjoyed and overwhelmed with love in this moment? What happens when I also feel fear, worry and powerlessness?
The birthing process can be a challenging one for many couples, and witnessing someone you care about experience pain, invasive medical procedures, and emergency interventions; as well as watching helplessly as a medical team performs medical interventions on your newly born child, can be extraordinarily difficult to process. Birth trauma is a very real concern, faced by many parents who have given birth or witnessed the birth process. It is important to be able to recognize birth trauma, have awareness of its impact on daily life following the birth, and engage tools to support mitigating this impact.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is defined as an event that elicits feelings of fear, helplessness or horror. For many birth partners, the experience of watching a loved one undergo severe pain, and possibly significant medical intervention, creates intense fear and feelings of powerlessness. Knowing the stakes, including worry and concern for the life of the child about to be born, as well as for Mom, can be overwhelming. And many of the sights, sounds and smells – from medical equipment, to a baby that emerges blue in colour – can be difficult to process. The great anticipation, mixed with the many unknowns, and novel sensory experiences can be a perfect storm. Complications in labour and delivery resulting in high stress can have enduring effects.
Indicators of Birth Trauma
- How do you remember the birth? Do you recall it as if it is happening again, including re-experiencing the feelings of fear, worry, etc.? This is an indicator that the event may have been perceived as traumatic. Also, difficulty recalling the birth experience can equally be an indicator of traumatic responding. Feelings of confusion, fear and powerlessness/helplessness in thinking about the experience are strong indicators of perceiving the experience as traumatic.
- Dreams or Nightmares? Nightmares with themes related to the birth, or persistent nightmares about unrelated topics that began after the birth, can be indicators of trauma responses.
- Intrusive memories? Do thoughts of the birth come up randomly in a way that feels unwanted and intrusive? Are these thoughts frequent, and are they intense/distressing when they occur (try a rating scale to help assess intensity 1-10)?
- Have you been avoiding debriefing conversations with your partner about the birth? Have you avoided situations that might cause you to be confronted with memories of the birth experience (eg. Returning to hospital for follow-up care, seeing primary care workers who were involved in the birth, talking with family and friends about the birth)? Have you avoided photos from the first hours of baby’s life? Do you become uncomfortable or evasive when asked to recount the story of the birth?
- Your feelings about your involvement? Did you feel you did the best they could to support your partner? Did you feel powerless or helpless? Did you feel fearful? Did you feel you knew what was happening, or that you were left out of the loop? Did you feel involved in decision making and advocating?
- Numbing? Many people who experience traumatic events feel overwhelmed by the feelings this creates and seek to numb these feelings in many different ways. This might include sleeping, using alcohol/drugs, escapism through TV/reading/video games (used for the purpose of being not connected to yourself and the world around you, rather than for the enjoyment of the show/book/game; usually for an inappropriate length of time or at an inappropriate time of day; usually negatively impacting others including family or job).
Some people can initially feel acutely impacted by a traumatic event, but over the course of time process these events and experience reduced symptoms. For others, they may initially feel as though they are doing well, but later find they are consumed by intrusive memories. It is normal for trauma responses to show up sometimes well after the traumatic experience.
What Can Help in Recovering From Birth Trauma?
- Know what to look for and ways to identify if your symptoms are worsening.
- Talk with others involved in the birth to get alternative perspectives on what happened, sometimes our experience of what took place can be skewed by our fear/helplessness and other versions of the story can be helpful to draw out recall of the less scary aspects of the experience.
- Seek support from your support network. You may feel a desire to withdraw/avoid, but don’t.
- Engage in daily self-care, including sleep, nutrition, exercise, relaxing activities, etc. This can be hard with a baby, but is so very important.
- Seek counselling support, preferably with someone specializing in trauma and understanding of the issues at hand.
- If symptoms are moderate to severe, follow up with a naturopath or your family physician to consider naturopathic and/or medical options to support recovery. Medication can sometimes be useful to help boost functioning and support healing.
When in doubt, seek support and allow yourself and your family to thrive together.