6 Healing Steps to Process a Traumatic Birth



By the time my second son was six months old, I’d penned his birth story and shared it, along with gorgeous professional birth pictures. It was an amazing, empowering birth and easy to talk about.


Writing my first son’s birth story was much harder. I dreaded birth-related conversations. If I opened up with anyone, I lived in fear of hearing, “That was your traumatic birth? That was nothing,” or, “If you would’ve just gone along with X like everyone else does, you wouldn’t have been so upset”. Yet keeping my story in wasn’t helping either. As the months ticked by and thoughts about the birth were still keeping me awake in the night, I knew it was time to do something.


One of my doulas recommended Solace for Mothers and I joined the pilot session of a birth trauma support group called Mothers Healing Together (MHT). Through the help of MHT, I was able to do the hard work of healing.


So, what’s the deal with birth trauma anyway? Some people say ‘healthy baby, healthy mama’ is enough when it comes to a birth. For me — logical to others or not — that is not enough. Yes, the “destination” is imperative, but the journey matters, too. It is possible to both celebrate an amazing new life and mourn the journey it took to get there at the same time.


For example, if you completed a marathon, but got injured on the way, no one would say, “All that matters is that you crossed the finish line”. No, people would care about your twisted ankle; they’d want to hear your story, they’d admire your endurance. They would know that the medal is great, but the journey also matters.


Or think about college. Let’s say a professor unjustly accuses you of cheating. You have to fight to defend your character; you have to prove you really know the facts you allege to know; you are judged with a suspicious eye. Eventually, you still walk away with a degree and go on to a great career. Now, is that all that matters about that college experience the diploma you walk away with? Of course not. The story of those years matters. It shapes you. It changes you. The degree is there forever, and is something to celebrate, but the journey to it matters.


With my first son, I walked away as a relatively healthy mama with a healthy baby and a vaginal birth, but for all of those wonderful things to celebrate, the rest of the journey still mattered. I had panic attacks for months after. I would wake in the night with thoughts racing. My obstetrician confirmed I didn’t have postpartum depression, but he didn’t quite know what to do with my anger, pain, and questions.


Thankfully, I kept pushing for answers outside of his office. Over the internet and then through friends, I learned that there is a thing called Postpartum Traumatic Stress Disorder (PPTSD), and it fit me to a T. For some, professional help is the wisest choice to move forward. For me, a support group was the right fit to propel my healing journey. Through that group, here are six things that I found most helpful:


1. Tell your story

Tell it however you see it right now— to someone safe to you. Write it, paint it, speak it, whatever works.

2. Obtain your medical records

Gather them from your provider as well as from the facility. Hospital records contain notes from nurses and stats, things that may not be in your provider’s records. Now, just because you have these papers doesn’t mean you have to read them. But, it is a step. Consider finding a friend in the medical world to help you process through medical jargon.

3. Embrace that your story will change

As you learn more about yourself, others, medical details, etc. it is normal for your perspective to change. Let go of past perceptions and make room for the wiser outlook you have now. Wiser may not mean less painful, but sometimes it can give the struggle meaning.

4. Say what you need to say

It is never too late to articulate what would help a provider meet other women’s needs better. It is never too late to thank someone who got it right. Do what your instincts tell you: send a letter, log a complaint, make a phone call.

5. Write a birth story for your child at his current age

Putting things in simpler, kid-friendly words and concepts can be freeing.

6. Contact a professional for help if needed

Your time and emotional energy are precious, so screen providers ahead of time by asking if they are familiar with birth trauma.

Article in this complete format was published in The Wise Mom, member magazine for the Holistic Moms Network, Spring 2014 under the title Processing Birth Trauma. Republished with permission. Elements were originally published on MoreGreenforLessGreen.com.

Image credit: Mamma Loves

13 thoughts on “6 Healing Steps to Process a Traumatic Birth”

  1. I am not looking to offend anyone, but a successful pregnancy and birth is a beautiful thing.
    It is called labor, I’m sorry but it is going to hurt.
    Traumatic is going through miscarriage after miscarriage to be on your 4th try to lose your baby when you are only 5 months along. That is Traumatic.
    Thankfully I was able to have my beautiful son now 4 1/2 (vaginal) and then my wonderful surprise daughter now 2 1/2 (unplanned c section)
    I’m sorry, giving birth IS going to hurt, just how it is. Know I sound heartless, but the loss I went through….. every twinge of pain was Sooooo worth it.

    1. I empathize with you going through miscarriage is really awful and can be traumatic.
      It would be great if everybody was able to empathize with each other without having had experienced the circumstance to understand how that person might feel, or how it might effect that person.
      Everyone experiences pain, physical and physiological differently.
      Congratulations on your successful pregnancies and labors.
      I had a very traumatic labor and part of being able to deal with the trauma has been the support and kindness of other women. I never comment on articles…..but i really don’t understand why you felt the need to leave a comment. It is not helpful or compassionate.
      I had multiple chronic pain conditions during my second pregnancy and was bed ridden for 4 months. I could not walk or turn over in bed without crippling pain. I gave explosive posterior birth, with a hip condition and shattered my tailbone -NATURALLY with no pain relief. That was painful, but it was the impact of the experience that stayed with me and was difficult to work through.
      Understanding, kindness, support is what is needed.

    2. Luann, I responded on Facebook as well. I am so sorry for your losses. Loss and infertility was a very difficult part of my path to motherhood so my heart goes out to you. It sounds like the story to the point of holding your children is an incredibly powerful one. If you are interested in learning more about what might make a birth traumatic to a person, you are welcome to read my first birth story. It is really long (both the labor and the story), so I’ll point you to thick of the action: http://moregreenforlessgreen.com/vs-birth-story-part-3-labor-intensifies/. It might not change your mind, but hopefully it will give you insight into the emotional and/or physical pain that some women experience after* birth (*birth trauma in the sense that I mean it is separate than labor pains). I count myself fortunate not only for the children that I get to tuck in each night, but that I found safe spaces to be heard, explore my feelings, and heal. I hope that each reader with a not-so-simple story will intersect with such healing and accepting spaces in her life as well. Best, Pamm

    3. Luann.
      What you have been through is horrific but as a woman that nearly died through childbirth I can say giving birth is very traumatic and leaves awful memories with you forever that you have to deal with and no one really “gets it”

      My labour was both painful and very emotional for me and everyone around.
      Yes we all know its going to hurt,thats inevitable.
      Im nearly 6 yrs past my “traumatic” birth and it still hurts.I sit here writing this and feel very sad about it.

      The physical scars lasted only a few months the the emotional scars are here forever.

    4. I’ve been through two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy. Yes those were traumatic. Heartbreaking doesn’t even do them justice. But when I finally had my healthy daughter I still find myself not okay with her birth story. I’m not sure if I would say I’m “traumatized” but I don’t look back on it with fond memories…at all. My stomach is in knots just thinking about it and I don’t enjoy talking about it. After 4 years of trying to get pregnant, losing baby after baby, finding out that my third loss left me infertile and IVF would be my only option I was beyond grateful, in awe, amazed and head over heals in love with my daughter but the story of how she came into this world upsets me. Yes, all I wanted was her here healthy and me here healthy to enjoy her and I would have endured ANYTHING for that to happen but that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to feel the way I do. This article is not talking about how bad labor hurts. We all know labor hurts. You’ve missed the point entirely. We are all entitled to our feelings and it does no one any good to tell them they shouldn’t feel the way they do!

    5. You did offend me and you should be embarrassed to make such a callous heartless comment without knowing others stories. My twins were born at 27 weeks after I went into premature labor, it was also precipitous labor which means they were born within 20 minutes of going into labor (I didn’t even have time to process what was going on). They were born weighing less than 2 lbs each, one was blue and we thought he was not alive. He ended up having to be resuscitated and did survive. Both were on ventilators immediately. I didn’t know if they were going to live or what. I wasn’t even able to hold them for weeks and they ended up staying in the NICU for 3 long months where I watched them fight for their lives daily as their heart rates dropped and they stopped breathing and needed medical intervention multiple times a day. How dare you tell me to just get over it because they are healthy now. I still have nightmares about it and they are 10 months old. That was a heartless and offensive comment. I’m glad you got to experience a normal birth eventually but please don’t discount the feelings of those who never get to have a normal birth experience.

    6. I’m sorry for your loss, Luann, but you are misinterpreting the term “traumatic birth.” It does not refer to the pain of the contractions, but rather the emotional trauma some women experience during labor. To give a real example, here is the short version of my labor and delivery.

      I went into spontaneous labor in the middle of the night and it lasted for 62 hours, the contractions coming every 3-5 minutes for the entire time. (This was not so much traumatic as an enhancer, if you will. I could barely eat and could not sleep- you can imagine what this would do to your emotional stability.) During this time I had some support but spent most of my time isolated and overwhelmed. When I was finally admitted to the hospital, I was denied the chance to move around untethered and was forced into a bed on my back, making the contractions more painful. A dozen of the roughest strangers they could find checked dilation and told me I wasn’t dilating quickly enough. I got an epidural and had some relief until it was time to push. It was going well until the doctor, who I’d never laid eyes on before, came in. Within five minutes he accused me of “not pushing” and “not trying,” and started giving me shots with no warning. He and the nurses told me it was “normal” while I fought off a panic attack, and then he pulled out the scalpel. I protested repeatedly and he stared at me like an idiot. They all told me it HAD to be done because I was tearing, which I already knew was made for a faster recovery and decreased risk of infection than episiotomy they wanted to do. They insisted over and over that it was necessary and he decided to slice into me anyway. After he roughly removed my son by his neck, I was not allowed to hold or see him for almost 30 minutes, and then only because I was hysterical. My son was too worn out to nurse for several hours and they wouldn’t give me dinner until a recovery room opened up so I went over 24 hours without food. I can hardly remember that night because I kept losing consciousness from fatigue and low blood sugar. I was alone the entire time I was in the hospital because everyone had to work. The episiotomy caused pain when sitting or using the bathroom for over a month and pain during intercourse for 18 months.

      Was my birth a success? Yes, I had a healthy baby and I had no serious injury. Was it scary as you-know-what? You betcha- especially that part where a guy comes at me with a scalpel without saying a word beforehand!

    7. You may not be looking to offend anyone but you sure have managed to. Ugh. What a callous, horrible thing to say. You obviously don’t get it. Physical pain has NOTHING to do with anything. Wtf.

  2. Luann, I don’t think you understand the use of the phrase “traumatic birth ” as it is being used here. This is NOT about physical pain at all.

    Additionally, as women, we need to be very careful not to tell other women what they are allowed to be upset by. I am “not trying to offend anyone here”, but I seriously doubt you would appreciate me pointing out to you, that the death of my 8 month old son was FAR more traumatic than your miscarriages. I mean, at least you never held your baby or got to know it, right? (See what I did there? BTW, that was complete hyperbole, intended to illustrate the point I was making.)

    Our stories are our own. Our pain is our own. And how we deal with it requires support, not instructions on how to do it right. The authors pain is just as real, valid, and important as yours. Life is not a contest of “whose misery is greatest”. It is a contest of “who can find the most ways to build a happy, supportive world for ALL of us?”

    1. Thank you Chantel. You’re right. So sorry about your loss. All life has misery, whoever can find ways to build happiness for everyone is on the right track.

  3. I had a traumatic birth and it didn’t hurt that much 🙂 Trauma can be different for everyone. I had an 18hr labour with a epidural in at 13hrs. After all that we found my pelvis too small to get his big head out. So emergency caesar – where the epidural failed, my son got stuck and there were terrifying minutes where I could feel cutting and the doctors saying they couldn’t get him out. Followed by blackness as the epidural stopped working and they gave me a general anaesthetic.
    When I woke everyone kept telling me the baby was ok butnoone would tell me I was. I fpund out I was feeling crappy because of all the blood I had lost when they found a dermoid cyst on my ovary and had to remove it immediately.
    I have a wonderful child but lost my ovary (I had already lost the other) so lost any chance of future children.
    Healthy baby is not the complete story and 4 years later I found this article really helpful.

  4. I’m responding to all of the above. Infertility and miscarriages is very emotional and so painful to a much different degree that a traumatic birth. This article is NOT talking about that pain. My appendix ruptured at 25 weeks pregnant and the hospital I was at misdiagnosed me three times until it was too late and I was going into an emergency appendectomy at 25 weeks pregnant. Two weeks later I was back in the hospital with high fevers and not a lot of movement with the baby. The hospital told me to go home “you have something viral” my water broke four hours later at home at 27 weeks and I gave birth 4 hours later to my 2lb baby who was all infected with e-coli/blood in his spinal. He spent 71days in the NICU. This happened about a year ago. I definitely have/had PTSD from it. I’m so glad women are talking about the journey of their birth stories…it helps to bring healing and closure to traumatic births. It matters…the journey….your birth of your children stick with you. The process matters…it’s so important to celebrate life but it is so OK to mourn and grieve the journey in where it got us today.

  5. As a midwife of almost 40 years and the mother of 3 live children, I know each birth is as unique as each one of us.Trauma isn’t something we can quantify. It is how we feel regardless of if it makes sense to us or anyone else. Please let’s listen to each other without judgement. None of us should have to prove or justify our wounds to anyone. Having our stories and feelings judged by others just adds to our wounds. A big part of the ability to heal is in being able to tell our stories to ourselves and others and be met with compassion and respect for our experience. Lets create a space of safety where we can be heard and acknowledged just as we are.

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