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Making Peace with Your (Traumatic) Birth Experience

Updated: Jan 12, 2021

What Makes a Birth Experience Difficult? Some births seem really bad to outside observers, and yet mothers feel positively about them. Other mothers have births that seem “perfect” on paper, yet they are deeply troubled. What makes the difference? Researchers have previously defined “good” and “bad” birth experiences in terms of objective characteristics: length of labor, use of pain medications, medical interventions, and type of delivery. There is an assumption underlying much of the research on birth experiences that vaginal deliveries are usually positive, which is not always the case, and that cesareans are usually negative (also not always the case). When considering women’s reactions to their births, I have found it more useful to consider the subjective characteristics. Trauma psychologist Charles Figley describes these subjective aspects in his classic book Trauma and Its Wake. In looking at the range of traumatic events, he notes that an experience will be troubling to the extent that it is sudden, overwhelming, and dangerous. Let’s examine these in relation to birth.

•Sudden: Did things happen quickly? Did your birth change from “fine” to dangerous in a short time? Did anyone have time to explain what was happening to you?

•Overwhelming: Did you feel swept away by the hospital routine? Were you physically restrained? Did you feel disconnected from what was happening? Did you have general anesthetic?

•Dangerous: Was your delivery a medical emergency? Did you have failed anesthesia? Did you develop a lifethreatening complication? Was the baby in danger? Did you think you or your baby would die?

These three aspects can occur in vaginal or cesarean deliveries. In terms of understanding your reactions, the objective factors of your birth are less important than your subjective experience of it.

Your Relationships with Others

Not surprisingly, your birth experience can impact your relationships with other people. You might be angry or disappointed that people who were there to support you during labor weren’t able to protect you. When you try to talk about your experience, others may not want you to.

Not being able to talk about your birth can compound your negative feelings. In the research literature on psychological trauma, this is known as “sanctuary trauma.” Sanctuary trauma occurs when a person has experienced a traumatic event and turns to those whom he or she usually counts on for support. Instead of offering support, these people either ignore or dismiss the issue, further contributing to a victim’s sense of isolation and trauma. Unfortunately, a difficult birth can also influence another important relationship: your relationship with your baby. After your baby’s birth, you may have felt numb. Even weeks later, you may feel disconnected from your baby. This effect can be compounded if your baby had health problems and needed to stay in the hospital, away from you. Breastfeeding may have also gotten off to a very rough start. The stress of your birth may have delayed when your milk “came in” by several days. You may have needed to supplement your baby with formula to get through this time, and if breastfeeding didn’t work out, for whatever reason, you may have experienced this as another significant loss, or even “failure.”

What You Can Do

If you had a difficult birth experience, you cannot change that. There are, however, a number of positive steps that you can take to help you resolve your experience and heal from it. Here are some things that other mothers have found helpful. Keep in mind that coming to terms with a negative birth experience is a process that can take months. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t happen over night. You can overcome this. Process Your Experience You may find it helpful to contact one of the support organizations who can validate your feelings and help you come to terms with your experience. Peer support, in person or online, can also be helpful. Some women find short-term therapy helpful. Another option is to write about your experience. Some find that writing in a journal is very therapeutic, and they’re not imaging this effect. Researchers have found that writing can help you heal from trauma.

Learn As Much As You Can About Your Experience

I always encourage mothers to get copies of their medical records. If possible, talk with your health care provider or someone else who can help you understand the events that occurred during your birth. It is also helpful to read books that might put your birth experience in a broader perspective. Reading will do much to validate your experience, and help you understand it. You may still be angry (or you may get angry for the first time). But eventually the experience will not dominate your thoughts. If you plan to have another baby, the information you gain during this stage will make you a wiser consumer.

Give Yourself Time to Get to Know Your Baby

Your baby’s entry into the world was far from ideal. You may feel disconnected from her. Some mothers report that their baby doesn’t feel like their own. Fortunately, you can do something about this. Spend as much time as you can while holding your baby. If it’s possible and doesn’t feel too overwhelming, skinto-skin will help. If skin-to-skin feels like too much (as it can be sometimes, following trauma), ease into that gradually. Following a traumatic birth, breastfeeding can also be difficult. Having your baby skin-to-skin can also reactivate your baby’s feeding instincts and help your baby find and latch onto the breast, sometimes even weeks after birth. That reconnection can be healing for both of you. But mostly, you need to see that your baby prefers you to all others, even if, at the moment, you are having problems learning to breastfeed.

Realize Your Partner May Have Also Been Traumatized

A negative birth experience can create problems between you and your partner. Like you, your partner may have felt powerless and swept away by the experience. Your partner might feel guilty because he or she could not protect you, and react by being angry with you. Your partner’s negative feelings may make it difficult to offer you emotional support. In this case, the most effective thing you can do is to be honest with your feelings to one another and try to find outside support together. If, however, your partner is not willing to work with you to resolve your birth experience, you must seek help alone.

Resist the Temptation To Rush into Another Pregnancy Just To Do It “Right”

I often meet mothers who were unhappy with their birth experiences, who quickly become pregnant again in order to make it a better experience “this time.” You need some time in order to put your experience into perspective, get to know the baby you already have, and physically recover. Adding another pregnancy to the equation makes things much more complicated, and may not give you sufficient time to consider all of your options.

Resist Making Hasty Decisions about Not Becoming Pregnant Again

This is not the time to make a decision about permanent birth control. Some women make this decision only to regret it later. Understandably, you never want to repeat what you’ve been through. However, it is much better to make a deliberate decision rather than simply immediately reacting to a negative birth experience.

Make a Conscious Effort to Forgive Yourself

At first you might balk at this suggestion. “I have nothing to forgive myself about.” If you still feel this way after you’ve thought about it, great! However, I’ve talked with many women who blame themselves, and feel like they somehow failed. “If only I had been stronger...” “If only I had checked out the doctor/hospital more carefully....” “If only I had gone to a different prenatal class...” “If only I hadn’t lost control of myself in the hospital.” The “if only’s” are endless. Recognize that you did the best you could under the circumstances and with the knowledge you had at the time, and let yourself off the hook!

Recognize that Birth Is Only the Beginning of a Life-Long Relationship with Your Baby

Motherhood is a role you gradually grow in to. A difficult beginning does not need to be the blueprint for the rest of your mothering career. It is important to realize that a negative birth experience can affect your relationship with your baby, but it does not have to. This is why it is vital for you to get the support you need as soon as possible. I have seen mothers who have had difficult births try to make up for it by being “Supermom,” to everyone’s detriment. It is difficult for anyone (even Supermom) to be responsive and giving toward an infant or child when she is hurting inside.

In conclusion, I would encourage you to take good care of yourself and actively search for support. Many mothers and babies have overcome difficult beginnings. I am confident that you can too!

This resource was written and is distributed by Praeclarus Press. This information can be found in its entirety at

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