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  • Frances Bilbao

When birth is trauma

Giving birth is one epic journey and like most things pregnancy-related, it is very personal with no two women's experiences exactly the same. But according to recent research by Futura and colleagues, while their experiences may not have been identical, many women do have similar feelings after a birth in which their own or their baby’s life was threatened. In some cases, these feelings can taint the entire experience of motherhood and be felt for years after leaving hospital.

According to the research, the most common feelings during the experience and immediately after are:

  • Fear – You may have experienced fearing for your life or your baby’s life and would describe it as “shocking”, ”frightening” or “horrifying”. For some, this fear was intensified by seeing fear on health professionals’ faces.

  • Worry for family – Feeling near to death, you worried about leaving your baby and other children behind and how your family would cope.

  • Anger – You may feel a sense of anger toward your own body for “letting you down” and robbing you of a great pregnancy and birthing experience. Anger may also be felt toward health professionals if you understand there was a delay in diagnosis of a condition or that during the emergency you were isolated, ignored, treated inadequately, impersonally or unequally, or not listened to.

  • Guilt – You may have experienced guilt believing the trauma to be your fault. It is also very common to feel guilty when there is a prolonged separation from your baby or you felt more concerned for your own health than your baby’s in the initial aftermath.

  • Loss – Loss is experienced on a number of fronts. Commonly there is a feeling of loss of control in general, over your body, over medical decisions, and over a life event. You may also have felt a loss of ‘normality’ and replaced it with a sense of failure and ‘incompetence or incapability of performing the physical process of reproduction’.

Many women also continue to experience negative consequences well beyond the first few months. The most common ongoing effects include:

  • Seeking a cause and ruminating – It is very common to want to find a reason for why such a terrible event has happened. As such, you may blame yourself or health care professionals, or hold onto a general sense of unfairness or injustice if no obvious cause can be found. It is common to continuously think over and over about how things could have been different in any of these scenarios.

  • Post-traumatic stress symptoms – You may relive your experience in the form of flashbacks or nightmares. You might avoid hospitals, doctors, or even other pregnant women as they remind you of your experience. These symptoms may have only appeared 1-6 months after the birth as the initial joy of baby’s arrival slowed down and you had more time alone to reflect.

  • Difficulty bonding with baby – You may have experienced a separation from your baby due to your own medical treatment. Care may have been given by a family member which hindered your ability to establish breastfeeding and develop a close relationship with your baby creating a sense of failure as a mother.

It is important to understand that all of these feelings are extremely common and a natural reaction to being in a very scary situation with little to no control. It is equally important to note that you can seek help if working through them is difficult on your own. There are special supports available where you can speak safely and openly about what has happened and work on healing in the best way for you. While many women feel the same way, everyone has their own unique story to work through and find different coping mechanisms helpful. As a starting point, I recommend you contact PANDA (Post and Antenatal Depression Association) on 1300 726 306. They can discuss your situation with you and refer you to specialists in your area if necessary. You can also visit the COPE (Centre of Perinatal Excellence) website for further information on birth trauma and resources.

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