How to Recover After a Traumatic Birth

Tired mother and baby

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For some, childbirth is a positive, life-changing experience that they can look back on fondly. For others, it can be a difficult, troubling, and even frightening episode in their lives that they try their best to forget. 

An estimated one in three births are considered to be traumatic, and the lasting effects can be both physical and psychological. As well as causing physical injuries, birth trauma can cause postpartum anxiety, difficulty bonding with your baby, and even postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

While navigating the postpartum period in the wake of a traumatic birth can be stressful and challenging, there are—thankfully—positive steps you can take to recover and thrive.  

What Makes A Birth Traumatic?

Birth trauma is distress experienced by a parent during childbirth. Identifying what makes a childbirth experience traumatic is subjective, so different from one parent to another. 

However, there are circumstances that can increase the chance of birth trauma. These are: 

  • A long labor 
  • Loss of dignity during childbirth
  • A lack of communication with caregivers
  • Severe pain in labor or delivery
  • Fear for baby’s life or health 
  • Fear for parent's life or health

“In general, a birth may be traumatic if there is a real mismatch between a patient’s childbirth expectations and her actual experience,” says Daniela Carusi, MD, MSc, director of Surgical Obstetrics and Placental Abnormalities at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. 

“Often the patient may be in a scenario that feels out of control,” continues Dr. Carusi. “This may involve situations that seem obviously traumatic, such as a life-threatening experience, but it can also include situations that look perfectly normal or even positive to the outside world.” 

How A Traumatic Birth Can Impact You Physically

The physical effects of a traumatic birth vary from case to case, depending on your experience. You may have suffered a tear or had an instrumental delivery–when forceps or vacuum extraction are used to deliver the baby, Either could leave you in pain or dealing with incontinence. 

A traumatic birth can also lead to problems establishing a positive breastfeeding routine, as well as being unable to enjoy physical intimacy.   

“In the short term some women have difficulty with the physical act of breastfeeding, or may find it hard to control postpartum pain,” says Dr. Carusi. “Longer-term pain may persist, while some patients may relive their traumatic experience–such as feeling that they are hemorrhaging again. Others may have difficulty with physical intimacy and sexual relationships.” 

How A Traumatic Birth Can Impact You Psychologically

For many people who have endured a traumatic birth, their emotional scars run deeper than their physical ones. Fear, grief, and loss are all emotions associated with a traumatic birth. You may also be suffering from PTSD or postpartum depression. Some research even indicates that those who have had a negative birth experience are less likely to have any further children.

“One of the lasting emotional effects that birth trauma leaves is a continual sense [or] feeling of fear and loss,” explains Rachael Benjamin, LCSW, senior therapist and director of Tribeca Maternity, a center of psychotherapy in New York. “That includes loss around the experience of birth being safe, loss of control in birth [or] labor, and loss of safety of the birthing parent or baby or both.” 

Daniela Carusi, MD, MSc

“Patients with a traumatic experience may feel grief regarding their birth experience, and isolation from family members and their community who may not understand the patient’s experience.”

— Daniela Carusi, MD, MSc

You may also feel a sense of grief surrounding the birth experience that you didn’t get to have, says Dr. Carusi. This can cause tension within relationships, especially if those closest to you believe that having a new baby should make up for any trauma endured. 

“Patients with a traumatic experience may feel grief regarding their birth experience, and isolation from family members and their community who may not understand the patient’s experience,” says Dr. Carusi. “Some have outright post-traumatic stress disorder, which can include episodes of reliving their negative experience, sleep disturbances, anxiety symptoms, and disconnecting from their babies, partners or families.” 

Additionally, fear over the memory of the negative experience can cause hypervigilance in the parent, which can impact their ability to bond with their baby. 

“Sometimes, because the person has a fear of something happening to the baby, or a medical issue that needs to be monitored, it feels like that takes precedence over connecting with the baby,” Rachael explains. If unaddressed, this hypervigilance can last for years, causing a significant impact on how you parent your child.    

“Parents might worry about toddlers or preschoolers and feel intensely worried for their kids’ safety or about medical procedures that are unrelated to the birth,” says Rachael. “The experience of the past trauma creates a feeling of always being ‘on’ and not being able to relax in the present.”

What Is Postpartum PTSD And How Do You Know If You Have It?

PTSD is often associated with soldiers returning from war. However, for parents who have endured a traumatic birth, as many as a quarter of them will develop symptoms of postpartum PTSD. Symptoms can include; 

  • Flashbacks of the traumatic event 
  • Nightmares 
  • Intrusive thoughts   
  • Difficulty connecting with your baby 
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Distrust of the medical system 
  • Anxiety or panic attacks 
  • Hypervigilance 
  • Self-blame 

Postpartum PTSD is hugely debilitating, with sufferers reexperiencing the traumatic event via flashbacks or nightmares, which can be triggered by sights, sounds or smells associated with the birth. It can impact relationships and even your ability to connect and bond with your baby

“Some of the signs of PTSD are feeling flooded by feelings, memories, senses, and flashbacks of the traumatic event,” says Rachael. “It might also be evidenced by hypervigilance towards our own health or that of the baby’s, increased anxiety or panic attacks, feeling overwhelmed by external stimuli from places that remind one of the experience of birth, or feeling not present even in activities that once were pleasurable.” 

If you are suffering from any of the above symptoms or feel concern surrounding your mental health, reach out to a trusted medical professional for further advice. 

How to Cope After Traumatic Birth

The first step towards overcoming your trauma is identifying what aspect of your birth experience was traumatic and then discussing this with a medical professional who has an understanding of the concept of traumatic childbirth. 

“They may want to start with a primary care physician, OB/GYN, or midwife—these providers may not have considered that their patient is experiencing trauma, but can be a good entry into the right type of care,” suggests Dr. Carusi. 

The next step is connecting with someone who can hold the trauma with you, not breeze past it but allow space to talk, feel, grieve, face, and process what happened or is happening, says Rachael. 

“This can be with your partner, a medical provider, a therapist, a therapy group, a family member, or a friend,” suggests Rachael. “Then after you do all the feeling, facing, grieving, naming, you can make use of the trauma to see what might come after, what you might want to build, reorganize, rework as you move the trauma from the present to the past.” 

A Word From Verywell

Articulating why your childbirth experience was traumatic can be difficult, especially when the outcome seems positive to others. However, it is important to recognize that your feelings are valid and that they are unlikely to just go away on their own. 

Although opening up to those around you can help them understand how you are feeling, seeking advice from a healthcare professional who understands traumatic childbirth could be the key to true healing.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Nicola Appleton
Nicola Appleton is a UK-based freelance journalist with a special interest in parenting, pregnancy, and women's lifestyle. She has extensive experience creating editorial and commercial content for print, digital, and social platforms across a number of prominent British and international brands including The Independent, Refinery29, The Sydney Morning Herald, HuffPost, Stylist, Canva, and more