5 Signs You've Suffered a Traumatic Birthing Experience — & How to Cope With It

by Natalie Kiser

This story is part of a larger conversation on the Black Maternal Health Crisis.

When an expecting mother enters the doctor’s office to give birth, she’s entrusting medical professionals — the ones trained to care for both mom and baby — to do their jobs. But more often than not, medical professionals leave mothers and especially black mothers feeling ignored and dismissed during the birthing experience. This in turn makes mothers feel like they have nowhere to turn for themselves or their baby. And with nowhere to turn and no one to listen, how will the baby come into the world alive and healthy? Because in most cases, what makes birth traumatic is the fear that you or your baby are going to die.

Dad holding baby

Related story This Father Had to Turn His Pain into Purpose After Losing His Wife in Childbirth

Dr. Lexx Brown-James, a sex therapist and educator currently pregnant with baby number three, had the same feeling of hopelessness and mistrust when it came to her then-physician. “I hated my first two births,” Dr. Lexx says. “I hated them with a passion. I did not feel very hopeful about options. Either I’m a black body, a fat body, and fatphobia in medicine is another thing, along with anti-blackness. I was very big on my first pregnancy around consent-based touching. I was in labor, and someone grabbed my hand to put an IV in me. I snatched my hand back and told them, ‘You need to ask before you touch me,’ and they were really flippant.”

Factors such as loss of control, loss of dignity, the hostile attitudes of the people around them, feelings of not being heard, or the absence of informed consent to medical procedures can trigger birth trauma. It can sometimes be confused with postpartum depression, but one of the main distinguishing signs is that you feel as though you’re reliving the trauma through flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or dreams, otherwise known as PTSD. Read below to learn more about the signs associated with birth trauma.

Anxiety

According to the Birth Trauma Association, one of the main symptoms of birth trauma is feeling hypervigilant. This means that you are constantly alert, irritable, jumpy, and over-anxious. You worry that something terrible is going to happen to your baby and/or you may also become overprotective of your baby. This also goes for partners. Birth trauma can happen to people who have witnessed the event occur. This is why some partners, and even midwives, experience PTSD or anxiety after seeing a traumatic birth.

Avoidance 

If you find that you’re avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma such as refusing to walk past the hospital where you gave birth or avoiding meeting other women with new babies, then you may have experienced a traumatic birth. “If you’re feeling avoidant of that medical system that you were in, or if you’re feeling a lot of dread to have to go back and correspond with that care person, or you’re finding you want to hide things from them, those are signs that something else might be going on,” Dr. Lexx says.

Low mood

Feeling low and unhappy (“negative cognition” in the medical jargon) is another sign of birth trauma. You may feel guilty and blame yourself for your traumatic birth. According to the Birth Trauma Association, many women are wrongly diagnosed with PND (post-natal depression) and are prescribed medication that may do little, or nothing, to help their situation. Women are often told by healthcare professionals that they should try and move on with their lives or that they should just be grateful that they have a healthy baby, which can exacerbate those feelings of guilt and unhappiness.

Loss of memory

While some may experience intrusive memories of the event, others may have difficulty remembering parts of their birth trauma. As with any painful event, the brain will sometimes hide particularly stressful, traumatic, or fear-related memories, according to Northwestern Medicine. This can be seen as a defense mechanism and a protective solution in the short term when the emotional pain of recalling the event is still profound, but in the long term, suppressed memories can create serious emotional health concerns.

How to cope

Because every person and birthing experience is different, one coping method may not work for another. But either way, it’s crucial to seek help, from a medical professional you trust so that you can begin to heal and change how you think about your experience. For those who feel comfortable sharing their experience with medical staff, Dr. Lexx suggests talking to a patient advocate at your hospital. “If you’re feeling mistreated, unheard, not taken care of, even if it’s after the fact, you can talk to those folks,” she says. “Your experience can be documented so they can look at the policies and procedures around how you were treated, to make sure that they can try and curtail this happening to others in the future.”

And if you can’t do anything with the medicalized system, there are postpartum depression groups or postpartum anxiety groups available as well. “The are perinatal and infant loss groups in case anything tragic happens, and postpartum therapists, who are specifically trained to deal with postpartum,” Dr. Lexx says. “You can also check in with your regular therapist, sooner rather than later, after the birth.”

But no matter which route you decide to take, the most important thing to remember is to not rush. “A lot of people try and rush healing and forget about it to get back to life as normal,” Dr. Lexx says. Give yourself time to work on falling in love with this kid, forgiving yourself for not speaking up, and recognizing that it’s not all on you because that’s not fair either. Only taking your piece of the pie — not the whole pie — is really important here.”

You can learn more about the health crisis facing Black moms and birthing people here.