While there is a general understanding that childbirth will be painful, it is less commonly associated with trauma. However, for many women and their partners the physical and emotional experience of delivering a child can be traumatic. In fact, research suggests 33-45% of women perceive their birth to be traumatic (Beck, Driscoll & Watson, 2013).
An individual’s experience may have been traumatic regardless of how others may describe the experience. For example, a midwife or obstetrician may describe a birth as “routine”, but a woman or partner may be left traumatized. Although any birth could be traumatic, common factors in traumatic experiences include when birth is early, unexpected, very quick, in a location other than planned, with care providers who do not adequately communicate or support, requires intervention, or where complications arise. Deliveries in which the child is quickly taken away for medical reasons are very commonly traumatic.
At extreme, the psychological consequences of birth trauma can constitute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder refers to a set of symptoms which occur in response to a particular trauma. Symptoms may include feeling anxious and irritable, experiencing intrusive memories or flashbacks, trouble sleeping and nightmares, and avoidance of attending locations which may trigger memory, or avoidance of thinking about the birth.
It is important to acknowledge that the birthing experience can also be traumatising for fathers and partners. Watching their partner in pain and distress can result in feelings of lack of control and anxiety. This can be compounded if there are further complications for either/both mother and baby following the birth.
Any birth can be traumatic to the family involved. Debriefing appropriately is always a good idea. There is no particular way you “should” feel given any particular experience. Unfortunately others may dismiss your experience, which makes this trauma much more difficult to process.
It is sometimes years later that women (and men) seek psychological help to deal with their traumatic birth. Gaining assistance in processing your trauma is important, particularly if there may be future pregnancies and birth. Seeking appropriate assistance can reduce fear for future pregnancies and births. If you are troubled by your response to childbirth seeking support from those who work specifically in this area can assist.
For more information on traumatic birth visit the Australasian Birth Trauma Association.
Tatano Beck, C., Watson Driscoll, J. & Watson (2013). Traumatic Childbirth. Routledge; Oxon.