Coping with Traumatic Birth

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A new mother tried her best to recall the birth of her firstborn son. She remembers heading to the hospital after her water broke. She remembers checking in and settling in a room. Very clearly she remembers the smile of the first nurse she encountered. Then her memory gets a little hazy.

There was a lot of beeping and rushing about. The baby was coming quickly. That’s what she remembers thinking, anyway. But it didn’t quite happen that way. When her baby finally did arrive, he was brought to the NICU due to what was thought to be oxygen loss. She was exhausted and had lost a lot of blood, and her baby was several floors away.

Her baby spent three nights in the NICU, but this new mom’s nightmare had only just begun. For weeks, she woke up in a panic each night, the vague memories of his birth flashing through her mind. She was anxious, exhausted, and feeling disconnected. She didn’t know how to cope with it and care for her newborn.

Life with a new baby can be challenging enough, but add a traumatic birth to the mix and it can be downright difficult.

In fact, some women can develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition characterized by flashbacks, elevated anxiety, and nightmares, following a traumatic birth. This can include rumination about the traumatic event and heightened fears about the health and safety of the baby. It can also lead to social isolation and symptoms of depression.

Find a support network

It’s very difficult to reach out for help, especially when those around you insist that this should be the happiest time of your life. The truth is that it’s exceptionally difficult to care for a newborn around the clock when you’re having difficulty caring for yourself. You need rest. You need support. And you need time to recover.

{ MORE: Is Venting About Motherhood Actually Making You More Miserable? }

Enlisting help with practical matters can help free up the emotional space you need to seek professional help. Reach out to friends and family with your specific needs. Do you need help with the baby so you can see your doctor? Do you need someone to pick up groceries or deliver a couple of meals? Don’t be afraid to ask for support during this time. Your friends and family members can’t read your mind or predict what you need. When you take that first step and ask, you might be pleasantly surprised to learn that friends, neighbors, and family members want to be of assistance.

Start talking

In order to heal, you have to begin by getting your feelings out. One or two close friends can be a good start, but if you’re experiencing symptoms that interfere with your ability to care for yourself and your baby, you need professional help. Start by calling your doctor’s office to ask for a referral to someone who specializes in birth trauma. It’s also a good idea to ask about a group. Talking to other mothers with similar experiences can help you work through your grief about the birth and how it continues to impact you.

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Avoid self-blame

When feeling overwhelmed, it’s natural to try to figure out what went wrong. Unfortunately, this often results in self-blame. Many moms find themselves second-guessing every decision they made leading up to the traumatic birth. The truth is that you can’t plan for every single thing and you can’t hold yourself responsible for the experience.

{ MORE: Can You Still Have a Home Birth with an Incompetent Cervix? }

Give yourself permission to let go of feelings of guilt and focus on what you can to do to heal from the experience. Many people find that journaling the experience can bring some inner peace. Others use art, mindfulness, and exercise to work through the emotional pain.

Acknowledge the loss

You might find that people expect you to simply “move on”, but life is never that simple. In experiencing a traumatic birth you experienced a loss. You didn’t experience the birth you planned, and you likely felt very frightened at some point during the process. Acknowledging the loss and verbalizing your feelings are very important first steps in the healing process. To stand up and say, “I’m hurting” is to begin to work through your pain.

Whatever path you choose toward healing, find a partner to walk by your side.

What do you think?

Coping with Traumatic Birth

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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