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What is birth trauma?
Video: Birth Trauma 101 with Dr. Sayida Peprah
Do I have birth trauma?
You can heal
How we are healing
Healing & Resources
Birth trauma includes the loss of dignity of the birthing person due to dehumanizing treatment by care providers and/or events where there is actual or threatened death or serious injury to the mother or baby. Birth trauma is self-defined by the birthing person rather than diagnosed by a professional.
Birth trauma can range from mild and temporary to diagnosable post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research shows that at least 1 in 3 of birthing people describe their births as “traumatic,” with the majority of that trauma attributed to dehumanizing treatment, and about 1 in 11 birthing women in the U.S. fit the diagnostic criteria for PTSD following childbirth.*
Video: Birth Trauma 101
Dr. Sayida Peprah gives a basic overview of birth trauma and the impacts on families. Dr. Peprah is a licensed clinical psychologist and birth doula. This video was filmed as part of Birth Monopoly’s 2018 Mother May I series on birth trauma, obstetric violence, and legal rights.
DO I HAVE BIRTH TRAUMA?
Remember, birth trauma is self defined. Only you know if you have birth trauma.
Characteristics of birth trauma are:
Reliving the birth or certain parts of it over and over, either while you’re awake or dreaming–sometimes this includes a feeling of trying to change the ending of your story
Sensitivity to other people’s birth stories
Anxiety, racing thoughts, and insomnia
Nightmares, especially about the birth setting
Avoidance of your birth setting
(For example, avoiding postpartum care or going out of your way to bypass driving past the hospital)
You Can Heal.
Each of us has an innate ability to heal ourselves.
I’ve learned a great deal about birth trauma as an advocate, working with and interviewing hundreds of women who are dealing with a spectrum of birth trauma that includes PTSD. I have had the privilege of working personally and professionally with trauma experts, as well as doing lots of reading and research.
Excellent therapy for birth trauma is available in some places. However, many people don’t have access to the kind of traditional therapy they would like or need, either for financial reasons, or because they don’t have the time, social support, or emotional capacity.
And, importantly, birth trauma is not part of medical and mental health education for practitioners. Without that training, professionals may draw instead from their cultural biases about childbirth and women, leading to interactions that are invalidating and harmful for the person seeking help. Some women report they finally gathered the courage to talk to their doctor or therapist only to be told, “At least you have a healthy baby,” or, “You’ll be fine once your hormones balance out.” So, choose wisely when seeking professional help for birth trauma–find someone who is trained and experienced in helping people like you.
Whether or not professional therapy is an option for you, remember that you were born with powerful healing tools of your own.
Holistic Peer Counseling (HPC) has been incredibly helpful to me and is extremely accessible compared to traditional therapy modalities. It can be used as a stand-alone practice or complement to other therapies. Learn more about HPC here.
“The real experts on trauma recovery are people who have recovered from trauma. As a specialist, I can say that what I know about trauma recovery, I know from people who got better.”
– Nekole Shapiro, Founder, Holistic Peer Counseling
Psychologists have even identified a phenomenon called posttraumatic growth, where the traumatized person is able to rebuild their shattered identity into something even stronger than it had been. Posttraumatic growth has been observed in cancer survivors, survivors of domestic violence, and military veterans.
Posttraumatic Growth is not a typical or likely outcome for trauma, but survivors should know it is possible. Learn more about post traumatic growth here.
Among the hundreds of birthing people and medical professionals I have worked with, I have seen a remarkable rate of growth and healing when they receive appropriate care afterwards. This leads me to believe that, with the right resources and support, healing is achievable more often than not, including for people with complex trauma histories that predate their birth trauma.
– Cristen Pascucci
“My garden saved my life. We call it my Anger Garden. I poured all of my grief and rage into those plants.” – Caroline
“It took me a long time to trust myself that I would heal at the pace that was best for me. I found I could quiet my brain by using my hands methodically–puzzles, knitting, coloring. It was like during therapy sessions, there was this intense deep dive into the trauma for a short period of time, and then I could get back into balance while I quietly worked on something. It was just the right amount of engagement for my brain and body to start to even out.” – Laura
“The first time I shared my story, it was crazy. I was emotional and felt out of control. Well, I just kept sharing my story. It gets easier and easier and I feel more and more like the story belongs to me instead of like it was this awful thing that happened to me. I just keep talking and talking. And every time someone else says, ‘I’m so glad you said that out loud because something like that happened to me, too,’ I heal a little more.” – Chantel
“I don’t even like to say this out loud, but I’m so much stronger now. I want women to know that you can heal from a traumatic birth, from PTSD, from whatever. YOU are still in there! The trauma is not you, it is something that happened and, no, you will never be the same–there will be a new normal. But I would never have started the journey to healing from things that happened to me in childhood, and I would never have known how much I have to say, if there hadn’t been this whole process. I am still healing but I am more myself than I ever was.” – Jennie
“I am still healing every day. Every day I have to face it and every day I find that I am able to do it.” – Maria
Why don't we report assault in sex and birth?
Secondary trauma and birth advocacy
Five Ways of Healing Common Across Time and Cultures
Thanks to Kim Haxton of IndiginEYEZ for this powerful list
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou
Story telling is a time honored way of connecting with each other as well as a way to heal. Especially within a safe community of compassionate people who have had similar experiences, it can be a powerful way to sort out and release deep feelings of shame, guilt, grief, anger, and sadness. Getting your story out of your body for the first time, whether by speaking it out loud or writing it in a journal, is a critical step towards healing.
Read personal stories about birth trauma and healing related to obstetric violence here on our Obstetric Violence Stories Map.
LEARN MORE: Selected Books on Birth Trauma
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
The classic book on trauma from one of the world’s best known researchers and pioneers on how trauma reshapes the brain and body, and ways of healing.
The definitive book on the topic, weaving current research with case studies. A must-read for health professionals.
When Survivors Give Birth: Understanding and Healing the Effects of Early Sexual Abuse on Childbearing Women
Essential reading for survivors, birth workers, and healthcare professionals
How to Heal a Bad Birth: Making Sense, Making Peace, and Moving On
A straightforward guide for moving past a difficult, disappointing, or traumatic birth
Online and National Support Resources
Birth Trauma Support Group is an online support group for those in the United States who experienced a traumatic birth as the birthing person. It is a lay person support group, meant to encourage, share resources and offer peer support. This group is supported by Dancy Perinatal.
Birth Trauma Partner Support Group is an online peer-to-peer support group for partners of those who experienced a traumatic birth. Supportive of any partner regardless of gender, sexual orientation, marital status or other. This group is supported by Dancy Perinatal.
Birth & Trauma Professionals Support Group is an online group for birth and mental health professionals who want to collaborate to prevent, heal and educate about all forms of perinatal and professionals’ secondary trauma. This group is supported by Dancy Perinatal.
Postpartum Support International provides direct peer support to families after traumatic births.
birth trauma PROFESSIONALs
Find professionals in your area who specialize in birth trauma, from trained doulas to licensed therapists