May 16, 2023

What is a traumatic birth and PTSD?

Jane Magnani
Jane Magnani
What is a traumatic birth and PTSD?

Some people have a tough time giving birth, and afterwards, they may feel traumatised. 

If you are upset or worried about what happened when you gave birth, you may have had what is called a "traumatic birth." Many women experience traumatic deliveries as a result of forceps or ventouse use, labour induction, or inadequate pain medication from medical professionals or nurses. Women who experience very long or brief but incredibly difficult labours, or those who get unanticipated caesarean sections, may give birth in a traumatic way. 

Many new mothers may have had difficult deliveries as a result of stitches or bruises. However, not every traumatic birth involves a mother who is hurt while giving birth. You can feel as though your dignity was violated or that you weren't respected.

Psychological pain

Some mums have a traumatic birth because they didn't feel like they could speak up during labour. Some people might feel like they were treated coldly and not given enough information or explanation. When a mother thinks her birth was traumatic, these mental things can be more important than the events themselves.

It's really important that your story is heard and that you can say how things made you feel, even if other people wouldn't feel the same way. People often think that you will be happy as long as you and the baby are healthy. After a traumatic birth, you're not the only one who finds it hard to explain how much your experience meant to you and how much it changed you.

Effects on people who gave birth

Birth partners can also feel traumatised after seeing something scary, and this can happen even if the mother is feeling fine. Even though there isn't a lot of research in this area, it's thought that up to 5% of partners who see a birth develop symptoms of trauma.

Partners who aren't able to help during the birth and see stressful things and a lot of medical procedures can feel out of control and afraid of what's going on. Here you can learn more about how partners can help when a birth is hard.

Effects of having a hard birth

Different things happen to women after a traumatic birth. It can also take a while to accept what has happened.

Many mums find it hard to bond with their babies at first because the babies are a constant reminder of the bad things that happened to them. It could also affect how people get along with their partners.

If you have these symptoms for more than about four weeks after giving birth, you might have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). About 3% to 4% of women who have given birth will develop PTSD. You are more likely to get PTSD if you had anxiety or depression while you were pregnant or if you have been through a traumatic event in the past. It's also important to remember that PTSD can happen weeks, months, or even years after birth.

Newborn baby in basket

PTSD can make you feel in different ways. You could've experienced any of the following: 

  • Intrusive thoughts (unwanted, upsetting thoughts that are hard to ignore) or images, flashbacks

  • Feel like you're reliving the event over and over, nightmares, physical symptoms like shaking, sweating, or trouble breathing, and reactions that are triggered by reminders of the event, like seeing a pregnant woman or watching a TV show about a woman in labour (you or others might notice you go out of your way to avoid situations that remind you of the event).

Since living with PTSD can be stressful, you or other people around you may notice that you are:

  • Having a lot of anxiety and fear

  • Staying busy to avoid unwanted thoughts

  • Having trouble sleeping

  • Feeling angry, upset, aggressive, irritable, or detached

  • Engaging in destructive behaviours like drinking too much, using drugs, or starting a new relationship

  • Not feeling connected to your baby and/or being afraid of getting pregnant again.


PTSD and postnatal depression

It's important to remember that even though PTSD and postpartum depression (PND) may have some of the same symptoms, they are different illnesses. It is important to treat PTSD as PTSD and not as PND, even though the two can happen together.

There are lots of ways in which you can receive help and support if you feel you are struggling with any of the symptoms mentioned here.

We have noted several ways and resources which you can use and contact for support:


Talking about what happened might seem like the hardest thing in the world, but it could help you make sense of what happened. If you feel ready, you might want to think about who you can talk to about it. It could be your partner, a close friend, or a family member.

You may also want to talk about what happened with someone who works in pregnancy and childbirth, but is not directly involved in the situation. This could be your GP or midwife. They should give you a chance to talk about what happened, and they will have talked to other people who have been through similar things. Don't be shy about talking to them.

Many hospitals have a service called "birth reflections," where you meet with a midwife or maternity support worker to look over your notes and talk about what happened. No one should be blamed for this.

Going to a birth reflection service can help you figure out why certain decisions were made or why certain medical procedures were done. Even though it helps some women, it is not likely to get rid of the symptoms of PND or PTSD. You should only do this when you feel ready, even if that's months or years from now.

You might find it helpful to join a support group where you can talk to other people who have been through PTSD. You could try the Birth Trauma Association or PANDAS.


Learning relaxation techniques

Using mindfulness, breathing awareness, or meditation to deal with your thoughts and triggers could help you feel calmer.

Therapies for the mind

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) to treat post-traumatic stress disorder after childbirth. There is evidence that both of these methods work well.

  • CBT is a type of talk therapy where you will be encouraged to think about the traumatic event in a different way and find ways to deal with it. It is different from counselling because it focuses on the event and not on other things that have happened in your life.

  • EMDR practitioners change the way your brain processes the memory of your birth by using eye movements, taps, and sounds.

Most of the time, PTSD is not treated with medicine. But if you also have depression or anxiety, you might be given anti-depressants.


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