Some mums and their partners may experience the birth of their baby as a traumatic event. This is more likely if the birth didn’t go as expected, or there was a fear that either mum or baby were in danger of harm. Feelings of helplessness, severe anxiety and confusion, as well as uncertainty of how things may turn out can be extremely traumatic. The impact of such a difficult experience and memories of what happened may not easily fade after the birth, even when the outcome is positive.
Symptoms of postnatal trauma can start immediately after the birth or may develop in the weeks and months after. Although distressing, trauma symptoms are a normal response to an abnormal and possibly life threatening event and can include:
Reliving the trauma:
- Vivid and intrusive thoughts and images of the event which can suddenly appear and distress you.
- Disturbing dreams.
- Intense distress and anxiety when faced with reminders of the experience.
Changes in thinking, feeling and physical sensations:
- Being easily startled and always on the lookout for possible dangers or threats, known as hypervigilance.
- Getting very emotional very quickly, sometimes for no obvious reason, known as hyperarousal.
- Disturbed sleep patterns.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Feeling numb or emotionally detached.
Negative thoughts and feelings:
- Thinking negatively about yourself, the world and the future.
- Excessive self-blame.
- Reduced interest in your usual activities.
- Difficulties experiencing positive feelings.
You may also notice that you try to avoid thinking about what happened and anything which triggers the memory. For example, you may feel the urge to avoid situations that remind you of the trauma. Again this is common following a traumatic experience. For many people, trauma symptoms decrease gradually as the experience is accepted as something that has happened. Good support from partners, family, friends and professionals can help with this adjustment. However, if symptoms continue for weeks or months after the birth this is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. As it’s not as well-known as Postnatal Depression, Postnatal PTSD may not be as easily recognised, by either the parents themselves or the professionals involved in their care. It’s common for new parents who’ve experienced a traumatic birth to think that they should be able to move on after the event. This can stop the effects of the experience from being acknowledged and understood.
There are a number of factors which increase the likelihood of Postnatal PTSD developing. These include:
- a difficult experience of childbirth
- previous mental health difficulties
- a history of previous traumatic experiences
- birth complications and emergency procedures
- lack of support from family or friends
Many people who experience a traumatic birth find that the effects can continue and overshadow the period after the birth. In this case, it’s important to seek professional help and support including psychological therapy. You can refer yourself to Leeds Mental Wellbeing Service or talk to your midwife/health visitor or GP, who can arrange a referral to an appropriate service. You can find more information about treatments for PTSD on the NHS website.