Overcoming a Traumatic Birth

I experienced a traumatic birth with my now four-year-old son. Even after having a wonderful homebirth with my second child a year ago, I am still suffering guilt, grief, and overwhelming sadness related to my first birth. My son is a wonderful, spirited child; but he also experiences explosive anger and frustration and has never enjoyed being held. I have worked so hard to try and bond with him, but it still feels as though something is missing?

I’m so sorry to learn of your traumatic birth experience. I know that the terrible impact of trauma can ripple through a woman’s life in ways she never expected. The challenges that you describe may very well be related, at least in part, to your traumatic birth. Let’s take a look at trauma’s impact on attachment first.

Attachment between caretaker and child is formed over an extended period of time. Influenced by both nature and nurture, it is the result of countless interactions between caretaker and child. The child experiences and expresses a need, which is met by the caretaker, and gradually he or she associates the resulting positive feelings with the caretaker. The caretaker, in turn, is satisfied that the baby or child is calmed and comforted. Baby/child wearing, cosleeping, massaging, breastfeeding and, later, hand-feeding contribute to meeting a little one’s needs and thus help to build attachment over time.

Though attachment can be derailed by trauma and other life events, it can also be recovered. Responsiveness is a key component of the attachment process: a mother must recognize the baby’s need and the baby must be able to receive her caretaking. If a biological or adoptive mother is unable to respond to her baby/child—because of grief, depression, trauma, separation, and so on—attachment can be undermined. It can also be undermined if a baby or child is unable to express his or her needs and then respond to the caretaking of his or her mother, whether because of a congenital or acquired disorder or illness, trauma, or pain.

Life experiences such as traumatic birth can result in a child who experiences explosive anger and intense frustration and does not enjoy being held. These qualities may also be part of how a child is “wired.” Children’s emotional expressions, including their ability to tolerate frustration and their desire to be cuddled, are varied. It’s wonderful that you recognize that your son is a “spirited” child! This shows that you are tuning into the positive, as well as the challenging, sides of his behavior.

So, where to go from here? A holistic approach will take into account multiple aspects of your situation. First, your feelings of grief, guilt, and daily frustration suggest that you may benefit from counseling. Women who have been traumatized in birth need a safe place to work through their experiences. It is very hard to do this when so much of our time and energy is spent on mothering young children. Yet trauma and grief don’t just go away. Ongoing or reoccurring symptoms are a call from within us to work toward healing, no matter how much time has passed since a trauma or loss. The challenge is to find a mental health-care provider who specializes in traumatic birth experiences. Carefully interviewing a potential mental health-care provider over the phone can help you determine whether he or she understands the significance of birth trauma. A counselor who thinks you should just “move on” and “focus on the positive” is not going to be helpful. As a matter of fact, such lack of validation can result in secondary trauma. But a skilled and knowledgeable counselor can be a meaningful part of the healing process. She or he can provide a psychological evaluation, help you look at possible physical causes of your symptoms, e.g., hypothyroidism, copper/zinc imbalance, caffeine or alcohol intake, lack of exercise, etc., and provide diverse treatment approaches. Moving forward in your own healing will free energy that you no doubt need for mothering—and for the rest of life.

Second, seek out support from other mothers healing from traumatic birth experiences. Knowing you are not alone and that your responses to your trauma are logical and normal can be very healing. There may be an International Cesarean Awareness Network (ICAN) group that holds meetings in your area. Even if your birth was not surgical, the group may be able to offer support and resources (such as suggestions for a therapist). Go to www.ican-online.org to locate a group near you and see the resource pages of my website (www.lifecirclecc.com) for additional help.

Third, your son’s behavior suggests that he could benefit from an evaluation, too. That he does not enjoy being held could be a symptom of weak attachment, or it could be a normal variation of cuddling behavior. It could also be a symptom of a disorder with a biological basis, for example, sensory integration dysfunction. (See The Out-of-Sync Child, by Carol Stock Kranowitz, for a very readable overview of this disorder.) Whatever the cause for his behavior, working with a counselor who specializes in child development and mental health, as well as attachment and family systems, could help both you and your son enjoy relating to each other more. (Challenges in a family never fully reside in any one member; see the page on my website about family systems if you’re interested in learning more: www.lifecirclecc.com/familysystems.html).

Fourth, learn even more about attachment. The wording of your question suggests that you have already read about attachment parenting in books such as Katie Allison Granju’s Attachment Parenting: Instinctive Care for Your Baby and Young Child or on websites such as www.attachmentparenting.org, the site for Attachment Parenting International. Still, you might not know about other resources, such as the New Zealand-based organization, The Centre for Attachment (www.centreforattachment.com). Adoption literature also has useful information on improving maternal-child attachment in difficult circumstances. Even though you aren’t an adoptive mother, you might consider taking a look at Attaching in Adoption: Practical Tools for Today’s Parents, by Deborah Gray. This book outlines common challenges in attaching, offers down-to-earth ideas for therapeutic parenting, and describes situations in which professional guidance is helpful. Adoptive families who successfully attach can bring hope to birth families who are struggling to bond.

Fifth, many parents don’t realize what a strong role diet can play in a child’s behavior. Food allergies and sensitivities can impact emotions as well as overall functioning. Many children do not do well on sugar, artificial colors and flavors and other additives. Is This Your Child?, by Doris Rapp, MD, might help you identify whether food issues are contributing to some of your son’s behaviors.

I hope my response is useful. A mental healthcare provider will help generate still more ideas and explore what approaches may work best for you. There are likely many factors contributing to what you are facing. Such complexity can feel overwhelming at times, but it also offers multiple opportunities for positive intervention. I wish you well on your journey.

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