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1 in 3 Australian women describe their birth experience as traumatic. Here's what you can do to manage it.

I'm the statistic; my first birth was traumatic and I'm still managing the physical trauma eight years later.

It took me months after birth to come to terms with my experience and seek the professional help I needed. 

When I was pregnant for the second time, I did everything I could to actively prepare for labour and birth and I thankfully had a much more positive and healing experience. 

Watch: COPE's The Truth campaign unveils the profound and potentially long lasting emotional impacts following a traumatic birth. Story continues after video.


Video via COPE.

It was this birth - my empowering second birth - that inspired me to create the podcast Australian Birth Stories and since then, I've interviewed over 300 women about their pregnancy, birth and postpartum experiences. It didn't take long for me to realise that birth trauma affects many women and for a plethora of reasons. It really is much more common than we think.

Unfortunately, in the exhaustion and challenge of early motherhood, it's difficult to make sense of what you're feeling and experiencing, and often, your own needs quickly fall to the bottom of the priority list. 

Many women have explained the details of their trauma but admitted that it was months into motherhood, when they stepped out of the foggy exhaustion of the newborn bubble, that they realised their labour and birth experience had left them with trauma and its associated symptoms.

There's a common misunderstanding that a birth experience needs to be a medical emergency or end in loss to be deemed traumatic. This couldn't be further from the truth. 

Birth trauma can be physical, psychological, or both. It may be obvious immediately after birth or it may take months to become apparent. 

Some women admit they don't regard their birth as traumatic until they're pregnant again and their memories come flooding back; they're subsequently filled with angst, fear, and overwhelm as they consider labour and birth again.

One woman's trauma experience is not comparable to another and therefore, it's entirely subjective. No one - not a birth partner, doula, midwife or obstetrician - can dismiss birth trauma or call it something other than it is. 

If you describe your birth as traumatic, no one can dismiss this, even if they were a witness to or participant in your birth. Interestingly, support people who witness birth can also experience birth trauma, even if the birthing person does not.

Trauma can be experienced when your birth hasn't met your expectations, you feel like you weren’t listened to, or the events of your birth felt out of your control.

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Physical birth trauma can be connected to a caesarean wound, perineal tearing, episiotomy, pelvic floor injury and/or prolapse. These traumas may be obvious immediately after birth or they may take months to be identified.

Physical birth trauma can also have psychological repercussions or birth trauma can be related solely to your emotional and mental experience of labour and birth. Signs of psychological birth trauma include:

  • Feeling angry about labour and/or birth
  • Nightmares
  • Unwanted memories or flashbacks
  • Consistently replaying the traumatic event
  • Guilt for how you’re feeling 
  • Relationship issues 
  • Avoiding reminders, such as avoiding driving near the hospital where it happened
  • Feeling terror, stress and fear whenever you think or talk about the birth 
  • Feeling detached or numb

Listen to Me After You where Laura Byrne guides some very different women through their very different stories of life after birth. Story continues after podcast.


Managing birth trauma.

One in 10 women who experience birth trauma will be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, many women will manage their trauma without an official diagnosis. Sometimes, simply talking through the experience with family and friends will be enough for a woman to process and resolve her experience.

For many women, targeted support will be necessary to manage their trauma symptoms. This may include:

Women's health physiotherapist.

If you're experiencing physical birth trauma (pelvic floor injury, perineal tear, prolapse), a women's health physiotherapist will be vital to your recovery. In most cases, your care provider will refer you after birth but if not, you're best to ask your GP for a recommendation. 

Physiotherapists can assess your symptoms and give you a personalised treatment plan that will include exercises and treatments moving forward. If your symptoms are severe, you may see them regularly for a year or more.

Mental health therapy.

This is the most important step you can take if you have emotional and/or psychological trauma. Many women with birth trauma will seek guidance from their GP (where they can access a mental health care plan which will give them 10 subsidised appointments and receive a referral to a counsellor or psychologist). 

Psychologists who specialise in dealing with trauma are best and may recommend Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. EMDR therapy can be quite confronting, but if you can trust the process, it really helps you process and move through your trauma.

Open discussions with your care provider.

If you are pregnant and preparing for another labour and birth, talk to your care provider about your past birth experience and your associated trauma. They will help you process your experience and may recommend accessing your hospital records so you can read a step-by-step account of your experience. 

Knowing these may change the way you feel about how your body laboured and birthed, and may provide reasons things happened the way they did. If you have questions, your care provider should be able to answer them for you.

Lastly, active birth preparation is a practical way for you to let go of your past birth and regard your next as an entirely new experience. Listening to other women's birth stories is a really powerful way for you to understand the spectrum of labour and birth experiences and learn skills you can use in your next birth.

The Australasian Birth Trauma Association is solely dedicated to supporting women, partners and families after birth-related trauma. It also offers a thorough guide to pregnancy and birth after birth trauma. For more information, visit   birthtrauma.org.au.

Feature Image: Getty.

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