Birth Trauma Therapy - Coping With a Traumatic Birthing Experience
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Birth Trauma Therapy - Coping With a Traumatic Birthing Experience

May 2, 2023

The birth of a child is usually a joyous occasion, but there are times when the events surrounding childbirth may create psychological or emotional distress.

A woman is surrounded by medical staff during childbirth.
Birth trauma differs from postpartum anxiety or baby blues and may require professional treatment.

This distress—commonly referred to as birth trauma—may be the result of an actual or potential injury or death to the birthing parent and/or the baby. The event or series of events may occur at any point during the childbearing process.

“It also may involve other types of psychological distress or emotional disturbances experienced during the course of delivery that are perceived as traumatic,” explained Alexa Bonacquisti, PhD, PMH-C, an assistant professor in the Clinical PsyD program at PCOM. “Often feelings of helplessness, lack of control, or lack of preparedness/shock accompany birth trauma. It may result in a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder in the postpartum period.”

Birth trauma is a subjective experience, Bonacquisti added. What one person perceives as a traumatic birthing experience may be unremarkable for another. Typically though, a traumatic birthing experience may include infant death, obstetric complications such as an emergency cesarean or psychological distress resulting from lack of social support, loss of control or other factors.

How does birth trauma differ from postpartum anxiety or baby blues?

Although birth trauma can share similar symptoms with postpartum anxiety and the baby blues, they are distinct conditions. The baby blues, which can include feelings of tearfulness and irritability, typically peak within two weeks after delivery and resolve soon thereafter without treatment. Postpartum anxiety is characterized by excessive worry that is usually generalized and vague. In birth trauma, symptoms develop in response to and center around the traumatic birthing event or series of events. In these cases, birth trauma therapy may be needed.

What is birth trauma therapy?

Birth trauma therapy is a form of psychological treatment designed to reduce symptoms of birth trauma and help patients cope with a traumatic birthing experience.

According to Bonacquisti, evidence-based psychological treatments can be effective in treating birth trauma or postpartum posttraumatic stress disorder.

“These treatments typically include an element of exposure to the traumatic memories and exploration of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that are associated with the trauma,” she said.

A birthing parent may need birth trauma therapy if experiencing recurrent distressing and intrusive memories of the birth trauma. Other symptoms may include nightmares, avoidance of thoughts about the pregnancy or delivery and persistent negative emotions such as fear, anger or guilt. Difficulty sleeping and feelings of detachment from a partner or child may also signal a need for professional treatment.

For some, seeking out support from family members and other loved ones and reducing other stressors may be sufficient to help them overcome birth trauma.

How can you prevent birth trauma?

Birth trauma is complex and hard to predict, as many factors can contribute to a traumatic birthing experience. However, there are some preventative measures that may help lessen the likelihood of birth trauma:

  • Discuss expectations and birthing plans - sharing information about the likelihood of certain interventions and outcomes in advance can reduce emotional and psychological distress.
  • Communicate during labor and delivery - explaining to the birthing parent what is occurring or what intervention is being implemented during the childbirth process can help mitigate concerns and fears.
  • Provide emotional and practical support - staying with the birthing parent during labor and ensuring continuity of care can lead to better psychological outcomes.

While it may not always be possible to avoid birth trauma, Bonacquisti advises those who experience it to keep the following in mind:

“It’s important to remember that experiencing birth trauma is not your fault and having a birth trauma response does not mean that you did anything wrong.”

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