I have three beautiful girls. My first daughter’s birth was pretty uneventful. She was born on her due date, and I labored for about 9 hours before she was born. My second daughter was also pretty uneventful. She was born 3 weeks early, fairly quickly – just under than 4 hours while my husband watched the Seahawk game and squeezed my hand during contractions- ha!

My third daughter, however, came an entire month early. I had just attended a military ball the week before, and in looking at pictures I couldn’t believe how big I was. I was swollen and I felt like a whale. The night of her birth I attended a graduation for my husband’s platoon from what is best described as their boot camp. I was having contractions every ten minutes but I brushed them off. It was a month before her due date and I simply did not fathom that she was on her way.

By the time I got home, I was in pain but I still would not admit that I was in labor. I took a bath with lavender (apparently that’s NOT what you are supposed to do when you’re in labor) to help calm myself down. By two o’clock in the morning I was clutching my bed through contractions. I didn’t even have a hospital bag packed yet, but I decided I needed to get to the hospital.

We had two young daughters and the hospital was only 7 minutes away so I told my husband I would drive myself and get checked in while he waited for my parents, who lived an hour away, to arrive.

I drove to the hospital, punching the steering wheel through contractions.

But I still, somehow, believed I wasn’t in labor.

Once I got there, I had to check in as an emergency case because I still wasn’t registered there. Basically, this was my third and everything kept getting put on the back burner because I had a 4-year-old and a 14-month-old at home, and I thought I had time. I was wrong.

I could barely fill out the forms. The check-in attendant asked if she could fill out my paperwork, but I couldn’t even breathe. I finally get everything filled out and I was wheeled up to labor and delivery.

The triage nurse didn’t believe I was in labor. She put me in the triage room, the same one I was in 14 months prior when I delivered my last baby, and told me to get changed. I was alone, scared, and in an immense amount of pain.

Finally, after 20 minutes, I was able to get to the bathroom to try and change into a hospital gown. I took off my pants and blood rushed down my legs. I hobbled to the door, opened it slightly, and yelled for someone to please come help. The nurse came in, almost annoyed with me, and said, “Alright. I guess I can check you like this.”

Well, her face changed rapidly. She was suddenly serious and said, “You’re fully dilated. I’m moving you to labor and delivery.”

Within 15 minutes, and with the OB on call lying to me about how my epidural “was coming,” my third daughter was born. She was whisked away to the neonatal unit because she was a month premature.

I was alone. My husband wasn’t there. He missed the birth while waiting for my parents to come be with our two other daughters. I labored and birthed completely on my own, and I didn’t even know how my daughter was doing. I hadn’t even heard her cry before they took her away.

It was one of the scariest moments of my life, and still brings me to tears as I write this.

What is a traumatic birth?

A traumatic birth is a birth experience that is damaging to a mother. This can either be physical damage like a medical emergency or psychological damage. Although the trauma happens during the birth, it is often the effects after the birth that are the most damaging to a mother.

To note- a traumatic birth can also affect the fathers or partners, or any other members deeply involved in the birth. Some mothers who have their babies via surrogates have been psychologically damaged from a traumatic birth experience even though they themselves did not go through birth.

For those who have experienced a traumatic birth, you may have felt fearful, helpless, or unheard. After birth, you may feel shocked, guilty, numb, or may experience panic attacks or anxiety.

Examples of different birth trauma experiences

No one can predict when a birth will not go as planned. No one can predict how someone might feel after a traumatic experience. Birth trauma occurs every day to mothers all around the world. According to Pregnancy, Birth, and Baby some examples of a traumatic birth include:

Your childbirth experience not going to plan, or not matching your expectations

  • Having a difficult labor that was long or painful
  • Experiencing labor complications
  • Needing intervention during labor, such as an assisted delivery (using forceps or ventouse) or an emergency cesarean
  • You or your baby suffering birth injury
  • Your baby needing medical attention after the birth
  • Stillbirth or neonatal death
  • Not receiving the care or support you needed at the time of birth, or afterwards
  • Previous birth trauma
  • A tendency to experience anxiety

In addition, a woman may have a higher risk of trauma during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum if she has experienced trauma earlier in her life especially domestic violence, sexual abuse, or rape.

How to prevent birth trauma

There is no real way to prevent injury-related birth trauma as many times these traumatic experiences happen unexpectedly. However, there are several things you can do to help you make sure your birth goes as smoothly as possible. It is important to keep in mind, though, that things can happen that are out of your control and that even the best-laid birth plans go out the window during labor and delivery.

Take prenatal classes to help you prepare for childbirth so you know what to expect and what your options are.

Have a support network- Establish people to help advocate for you during labor and delivery. Some traumatic birth experiences occur because the birthing mother is not able to defend herself and or doesn’t feel as if she is being listened to. Have another person there who can stand up for you and your baby if necessary.

Have resources available to you after birth- even if you think you are the mentally strongest person in the world, it is smart to have resources ready for yourself in case of a traumatic birth experience or in the case of postpartum depression. Having these on hand are extremely helpful as you probably will not have the energy to do any research when you are dealing with a trauma.

If you are prone to anxiety or depression, speak with your doctor beforehand to ensure that they are able and ready to help you in the case of a traumatic birth.

Be vocal with your doctor- if something doesn’t feel right, say something. If you don’t like how this doctor is handling your birthing experience, let them know. Defend yourself and ensure that you and your partner are prepared for backlash if you don’t agree with the doctor.

Hire a midwife or doula- Someone who is versed and trained in labor and delivery will be your best advocate. Have them attend your birth to help advocate for your needs before, during, and after labor.

How to treat birth trauma

How birth trauma is treated is often dependent on the type of trauma it is. If it is a birth injury, you will often have to go through medical treatments in addition to mental health treatment. If it is an emotional trauma, you may want to seek professional help.

The sooner you seek help the better. A traumatic birth experience can often lend a hand to postpartum depression, anxiety, and psychosis, especially if you have experience with depression or anxiety otherwise.

In some cases, birth trauma can often cause post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. You may want to reach out to a therapist who is trained in treating PTSD to help you overcome your emotional birth trauma.

Although my birthing experience was not as traumatic as some experiences, it was still something that scarred me for years to come. I was never as scared as I was that day. I felt helpless. No one was there to support me. No one held my hand or even spoke reassuringly to me through the labor. I effectively did everything on my own, and the only comfort I had was almost 20 minutes after her birth when my husband arrived. It wasn’t until 30 minutes after her birth that I even knew how she was doing.

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