Postpartum PTSD: When Moms Experience Trauma During Childbirth

Newborn baby

Every birth experience is unique. Many new moms look forward to the end of pregnancy and the beginning of a new journey as they enter motherhood. Some moms will, however, experience trauma during childbirth, sometimes leading to Postpartum PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

After delivery, many moms may feel fearful, disappointed and even angry that their birth experience did not go according to plan. There are many reasons why a birth experience may be difficult or traumatic. To understand this better, it is important to define what birth trauma is, and how it affects new moms.

What causes trauma during childbirth?

Trauma is defined as the result of an extremely distressful event that interferes with an individual’s ability to cope with daily living. According to a 2013 News Release by WHO, trauma may result from experiencing violence, accidents, war and loss among others. WHO estimates that up to 3.6% of the global population has experienced PTSD in the years preceding this release.

Researchers define Trauma during childbirth as the perception of threatened or real injury or death to the mother and/or the baby. A different school of thought opines that childbirth trauma should only be defined by the women going through it.

A 2022 study conducted to explore the experiences of women who have had traumatic birth experiences indicated the following findings: Many of the responses included extremely severe physical pain, the lack of support, the lack or loss of control over the birth experience as well as fear for the baby’s health.

What then makes certain birth experiences difficult?

Some moms will experience births that look really difficult to the outsider, yet, the moms are able to process the experience and feel optimistic about it. Others on the other hand, present what looks like a perfect birth experience, and remain deeply distressed in the postpartum period. For a number of moms, the birth experience brings them close to death, and affects them for years to come.

To further understand these dynamics, it is important to define what constitutes a good or bad birth experience. Research provides four objective parameters for this:

  • The duration of labour
  • The use of medication to relieve pain
  • The type of delivery
  • Medical intervention

Sudden birth experience

These four parameters shed some light on trauma during childbirth. For instance, some moms experience early labour so that they feel that everything happened too fast. In such scenarios, there is the lingering thought that the birth process did not go to plan. One of our moms once reached out and shared how, despite having hoped and planned for a vaginal birth experience, her baby was not progressing as expected and she ended up getting a CSection. In her experience, everything was moving too fast and this proved to be traumatic.

Too overwhelming

Some moms will feel so taken up by the whole process that they feel disconnected from what is happening (without the use of anaesthesia). One mom explained how the birth process felt like ‘an out of body experience’, like she was an outsider looking in and completely swept away by the procedures.

A matter of life and death

For moms whose birth experience is a medical emergency, there is always the risk of trauma. Whether it is failed anesthesia, baby developing complications and/or staying in NICU, or the mom experiencing heavy bleeding, an experience that places either mom or baby in danger can prove to be traumatic. This is also seen in moms who fear that their babies may die after birth.

PS: This study also indicated that for many moms, a traumatic birth experience can be traced back to actions by health care providers. When a nurse is unkind, or breaks sad news without empathy, new moms tend to feel ignored and that their needs do not matter.

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