Focused on my medical studies and career, it wasn’t until I was 39 years old that I was in a position to start my motherhood journey. After several failed rounds of IVF, I finally conceived twins via donor egg. After 2 months of hospital bedrest due to pregnancy complications, I delivered them at 31 weeks. They then spent 6 weeks in NICU growing and feeding.
I returned to work when the twins were 3 months old. Since I worked in the same hospital where I spent 2 months on hospital bedrest, had my emergency delivery, and made daily trips to the NICU, normal every day occurrences (which before my twins never bothered me) suddenly started to have a different effect on me. I started having flashbacks of the events of that stressful time in our lives. I knew something was not quite right and began seeing a therapist to help me understand what exactly was going on.
Like many who give birth, I had imagined my birth story would be very different from the reality that occurred. I have since lear ned that when things do not go as planned or one experiences events outside of their control, it can lead to what is called “birth trauma”.
As the Birth Trauma Association of the UK defines it, “Birth Trauma is another name for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after birth.” Factors that may contribute to birth trauma include experiencing loss of blood after delivery (postpartum hemorrhage), poor pain relief, a lengthy or short painful labor, instrumental delivery, stillbirth, or baby’s stay in the NICU.
Birth trauma is not only related to physical trauma, though. It can also include feelings of loss of control, feeling unsupported by staff or hostile staff, and fear of death or permanent damage during the events of the birth.
Some symptoms of birth trauma and PTSD include reliving the worst parts of the birth over repeatedly, or having flashbacks when you are not intending to have those thoughts, feeling jumpy or over-anxious, finding it hard to remember parts of the birth, having difficulty bonding with baby, feeling very different than you once felt (ie. feeling angry, depressed where you were not previously), or having difficulty concentrating.
The topic of birth trauma and PTSD is not widely discussed, perhaps in part because there is a stigma that a parent who has a healthy baby in their arms should simply not focus on the hard parts that occurred before, during or after birth and instead just feel thankful to have their child.
However, post-traumatic stress disorder is an involuntary reflection on past events. For the person experiencing PTSD, it can’t simply be ignored nor can they avoid the thoughts. In a discussion with Dr. Kristin Lasseter of the Reproductive Psychiatry Clinic of Austin, TX, we discuss what birth trauma and PTSD are, how to find a specialist to help support recovery, and how to treat it.
Sometimes as a parent it can feel like we don’t have time or even the right to put our needs first when it comes to something such as mental health. You deserve to get the support and care you need though.
If you feel like you may be affected by birth trauma and PTSD, please visit Postpartum Support International (PSI) to find a reproductive psychiatrist in your area.
You can also visit these resources to learn more:
Shannon M. Clark, MD, MMS is a double board certified ObGyn and Maternal-Fetal Medicine Specialist, and founder of Babies After 35. In her roles as a clinician, educator and researcher at UTMB-Galveston, she focuses on the care of people with maternal and/or fetal complications of pregnancy. Dr. Clark has taken a special interest in pregnancy after the age of 35, which according to age alone, is considered a high-risk pregnancy.
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