The Price Of Birth Trauma

mother-baby_1976030cYesterday I was asked to help at a lecture about birth trauma by the inspiring Dr Rebecca Moore, sharing my son’s birth story with MSc students of Womens Health. I’ve briefly touched on Caterpillar’s birth before in some of my postnatal depression posts but I’ve never actually posted a birth story as such, or more importantly, how traumatic birth affected me and countless other women.

Since it’s been brought to the forefront of my mind by my recent discussions at Kings College, I’ve decided to share for today’s post. Even though my son is now three years old I think it’s important to share our less-than-perfect birth experiences, firstly to help us heal and secondly to highlight that not everything in life is like One Born Every Minute – that these experiences do happen, often, and should be out in the open and freely discussed.

Caterpillar’s Birth

Truth be told, I never felt positive about giving birth, even years before we even considered trying for a baby. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a fear (although it should be noted that tokophobia is a serious condition), more a general unease. As a woman who knows she’d like children, you tune in to horror stories from friends and family members, or at least I did. When I became pregnant with Caterpillar I was overjoyed but I can’t pretend the hurdle of giving birth didn’t play on my mind. I considered myself a fairly weak person, with a low tolerance for pain (I no longer believe either of these) and made peace in my mind pretty early on that I’d likely opt for an epidural.

Many people believe that going into childbirth with a more positive & relaxed outlook can lead to a more positive experience and I don’t disagree with that. I’ve heard amazing things about hypnobirthing and know many people who were very laid back about labour and ended up with lovely deliveries. I certainly believe that going into labour with fear and stress certainly doesn’t help – after all all we hear at NCT is how endorphins are what’s required and adrenaline should be avoided at all costs (because it’s really easy to just tell your anxious body to stop pumping out adrenaline, right?). But I also know that difficult births still happen to women who went into the experience positive and relaxed so I guess there’s no hard and fast rules.  It should also be noted that birth trauma doesn’t have to be medically traumatic but can be any situation where the mother was negatively affected – perhaps she felt out of control or had her wishes ignored, or felt upset or threatened by the words or actions of a member of the medical team.

I went into labour when I was four days overdue and was shocked by how unbearable contractions were quite early on. I had expected mild contractions, spread very far apart, for a good few hours but mine were spaced only four minutes apart only from the get go. This confused me no end. I was managing the pain at home (just about) but because prior to birth much emphasis is put on time between contractions rather than severity of pain we felt that when the contractions were only three minutes apart we had better get to the hospital. Plus, I wanted there to be time for an epidural.

Fast forward a few hours and I was still managing the pain while we waited for the anesthetist. I remember being very surprised by how quiet I was. Another unexpected thing – the labour pains made me very nauseous so I didn’t want to touch the gas and air in case it made me more sick. The anesthetist eventually arrived and my epidural was put in, but 40 minutes later didn’t seem to be doing anything. The nurses then realised that the needle was in but no drug was going down the drip and therefore I wasn’t actually getting any epidural (helpful). When it finally kicked in it was a relief (although I could still feel the pain, just not as strongly – another surprise).

After an epidural, they put a probe inside to attach to the baby’s head for monitoring the heartbeat. When they began this procedure they realised my waters had broken and contained significant amounts of meconium. I knew from what I’d read this wasn’t great, so only increased my anxiety. Time went on and Caterpillar’s heartbeat continued to drop. They tried to make me move positions with increasing panic but this is pretty difficult when you’ve had an epidural and are unable to move normally.

Eventually when Caterpillar’s heartbeat dropped dangerously low they decided to go for an emergency c-section. Frankly, I was relieved. The constant rising and falling of his heartbeat was terrifying and I just wanted him safe. Everything after that is a little bit blurry (both figuratively and literally as I had removed my contact lenses!). All I could think about was getting him out as soon as possible. People had become a little frantic as his heartbeat was so low and a big part of me thought he was going to die at this point.

When he was born he was quickly whipped away as they had to suction mucus out of his throat so I didn’t get to see him for around 20 minutes. Nobody was really telling me much except my husband who is the only one who replied to my constant “Is he alright? Is he alright!” Stuck on that bed, with your stomach cut open, you do feel hugely powerless. The saddest part for me is when I did get to see him I couldn’t hold him as I was unable to move. When they were prepping me for surgery I could still feel a fair bit (I’m really not sure the first epidural had worked properly at all in hindsight) so in their rush they obviously gave me a bit too much to counter it so I was completely paralysed except my head, neck and a tiny part of one arm. This took eight hours to wear off.

I don’t harbor a lot of anger towards the staff and think they mostly did right by me, however why my son couldn’t be placed on my chest and held by my husband, or why my husband and son had to leave the room while I was stitched up is a mystery and brings with it a huge sense of sadness and frustration.  Those early moments and experiences are vital for women and their newborns and should be prioritised by health care providers where possible.  I will never get that chance back.

When I finally held Caterpillar that afternoon I sobbed. The midwife looked at me in surprise until I explained that I felt like I was meeting him for the first time. That eight hour period while I waited for the anesthetic to wear off is almost completely missing from my memory. I remember being sick several times, I guess I slept a little but I don’t remember my baby at all and this will always hurt.

The good

  • We are both alive and well
  • The medical team acted quickly and efficiently in our best interests
  • Hubs was able to be present and connect with Caterpillar straight away

The bad

  • The first epidural being messed up
  • Later being administered too much epidural and becoming “fully blocked”
  • Not being kept informed of what was happening to my baby immediately after birth
  • My medical notes being whipped off within hours before I even got a chance to see what had actually happened to us
  • Not seeing Caterpillar and then not being able to hold him for so long – I personally believe this contributed substantially to my fears about bonding with him. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that my terror that I didn’t feel connected to my son or love him “enough” during those early weeks was the catalyst for the anxiety that led to PND for me. I also had a particularly heart-wrenching therapy session where we established that when I thought he was going to die I emotionally distanced myself as a form of self-preservation, which possible also contributed.
  • Hubs & Caterpillar being forced to leave the room while I was being stitched up – this is the one that really upsets me as I don’t see any need for it. My husband says no checks were being done during that time, they just sat in recovery waiting for me, so why could they not sit in the room with me? While the surgeons were finishing with me I could have been looking at my baby boy and bonding, rather than lying there alone, cold and wondering where they were.

What could help

The deeper I look into all things perinatal the more I realise how much difference simple changes can make to so many parents. Sadly, these changes tend to cost money in many cases. But here is my wishlist for how to help women before and after birth:

  • Realistic antenatal classes – in my small NCT group of four couples only one had what would be considered a “straightforward” birth. And yet our sessions primarily focused on natural delivery and natural pain management techniques. Believe me, I’m not knocking this. As mentioned above, whatever we can do to alleviate fear about birth is a good thing. However, we need balance. We need more than a fleeting paragraph on the multitude of assistance some women require to give birth safely. I’ve been lucky enough to meet two wonderful ladies who work as researchers for NCT and they have embraced our feedback and hope to make changes in the future.
  • Access to my medical notes – I have no idea why my notes disappeared but all this did was made me think the hospital had something to hide
  • More support immediately after birth – an empathetic ear and some general psychological checking-in during those few days in hospital and subsequent home visits could have gone a long way to processing Caterpillar’s birth (and helping with my anxiety and PND in general but that’s a whole other post)
  • Better postnatal screening – this still isn’t perfect for PND but for PTSD it’s largely non-existent.
  • Fast and free access to counselling for anyone who feels they may be experiencing the longer term affects of birth trauma – whether that be PND, PTSD etc. Therapy services are so overstretched and in desperate need of investment, which hopefully will trickle through eventually, given Cameron’s prior promises.
  • A detailed reflection discussion with medical staff regarding your birth experience – at my local hospital there is an option to discuss your birth with a midwife but, for some reason, this only seems to be offered as part of your antenatal care during your next pregnancy (which, considering many women who aren’t successfully treated for perinatal mental health issues decide not to have another child, is largely irrelevant!)

Attending Dr Moore’s lecture taught me so much and only made me thirsty for more.  I’m happy that lectures like hers are being taught to our future medical professionals but more needs to be done now too.

For me, Caterpillar’s birth was only one of many smaller factors which contributed to PND, I’ve not experienced flashbacks and my anxiety issues haven’t been only related to the birth. But for countless others a traumatic birth experience can be the primary cause of a perinatal mental health issue and should be addressed, further than the cliched “Oh well, you’re both healthy – that’s all that matters.” Of course, mum and child being alive and well is the primary concern but it isn’t the end of the road. Sometimes people are suffering from an illness that makes them unable to let go of what they went through, and hearing those words will only increase their feelings of guilt for not “getting over it” quicker.

birth traumaIf you have experienced birth trauma and feel it is impacting your emotional health and every day life The Birth Trauma Association can help. Visit their website at or join their Facebook support group.

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42 comments on “The Price Of Birth Trauma

  1. Posting about this birthing experience reminds me a lot of mine, and the trauma of it all. Looking back, the experience did contribute, in part, to my PND. The more we write and talk about it, the more we demystify it.. which should help new moms (at least mentally IMO).
    Samoina (@Samoina) recently posted…3 Reasons I was an angry momMy Profile

  2. My first was a c section and it went wonderfully. They did ask for my OH and Holly to wait in recovery for the last 5 – 10mins but to be honest I was in shock and it didn’t really register them leaving, actually seeing her or the whole prep and operation. I agree with I didn’t have much support after having her. The 3 days in hospital were great. The midwife helped a lot with my breast feeding and and care of Holly (I had never even held a baby. Never mind had to look after one!). But after we got home the care just dropped away. The health workers would tell you to phone when ever you needed them. But when you did phone acted like it was a silly question you were asking.
    We will see how our second one goes!! Great post!! Very well presented.
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  3. This is a really good post and really balanced for something that has clearly impacted you and must have been traumatic. I had two different but equally scary experiences, I went into my second labour absolutely petrified and had no opportunity really to talk to anyone about it. Better support would be wonderful but as you say costs money, I would love to see an alternative to NCT xx #thelist

  4. I’m sorry you had such a traumatic experience. I can draw several parallels with my own delivery of my daughter. I was induced as an emergency because they had concerns she was failing to thrive and her heartbeat also dropped, but eventually I did give birth naturally. My epidural also failed initially, but that was because it simply didn’t work for me.

    I felt quite traumatised by the whole experience, but was lucky enough to be offered the service of going to speak to a midwife, which did really help.

    Feeling totally out of control is so frightening, and for various reasons I went on to develop Postnatal Anxiety. I’m mostly over that now, and I hope you’re healing too. X

  5. I think it is so important that these things are written about, discussed and shared. Birth trauma can affect women for so long after the birth and as you so rightly say lead to bonding issues. Giving birth is such a personal thing and every delivery is different. For me the key is for hospital staff to keep you informed. #picknmix

  6. I’m so sorry you had to go through that. My birth was difficult (meconium in my waters, ventouse delivery) but yours sounds much more traumatic. I agree that NCT classes only focus on natural birth – and while that’s the idea scenario, people need to be prepared for what might happen if things don’t go as planned. #KCACOLS
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  7. I’m sorry to hear what you went through, I feel very much the same about my last birth. Although my labour was very straight forward, the birth itself was so fast and due to the speed of it all my son inhaled too much fluid on the way out and actually stopped breathing for several minutes at birth. He was rescusitated for such a long time and then spent the next few weeks in ICU, it completely traumatised us all and even now, two years later, I feel that I still have on-going anxieties about it. It’s hard isn’t it? Even though you and baby were fine, that doesn’t make it any easier to digest afterwards. #KCACOLS
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  8. It’s awful when things don’t go to plan. I was terrified of epidurals, but ended up having to have one to fix the damage caused by the birth, so I missed the first few hours of the boy’s life on the outside. I don’t think I’ll ever address it. #KCACOLS
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    1. The sad fact is that we never get that time back and it’s so important. I hope you make peace with it eventually x

  9. I’m so sorry you had to experience this and well done for sharing such a brave post. I agree that NCT classes need to cover all types of birth, we covered a c-section but only really to explain that there would be a lot of people in the room and what all their roles were, it wasn’t that great! They definitely didn’t cover what I had with either of my births x #Marvmondays
    Laura @dearbearandbeany recently posted…Review: The Dinosaur That Pooped Books…The McFly Boys!My Profile

    1. We had one c-section session too, to be fair, but not great. And don’t remember much on any other kinds of birth difficulties/assisted deliveries. Thanks for reading and commenting x

  10. I’m so sorry that things didn’t go well for you. The point about never getting that time back is something I relate to myself. I also agree wholeheartedly about the NCT and the picture they paint. It’s just too rosy and leaves those who don’t get this idyllic birth feel like they’ve somehow failed. This is such an interesting post and thank you for going back and remembering for it. I can imagine how hard it was for you. #MarvMondays

  11. This gave me shivers. I had a horrendous birthing experience so much so that I was adamant I couldn’t go through with it again. But now my son’s 7 months old I know he’d love a sibling and only for him will I be able to go through it all again. I actually think I might have a genuine fear of birth now and it’s such a pity given what it provides us. Your so very strong for being able to lecture about it. #marvmondays
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    1. Thanks for your kind words and for sharing your own experience. I’m sorry you had a terrible time also. There are definitely ways to try to ensure things run more smoothly next time – much more open communication from staff for one thing. Hope you have a better experience if you do decide to have another xx

  12. Reading this has brought back fresh memories of the birth of my baby girl back in February. I was 12 days overdue and no sign of her coming out, she was barely engaged at all. We went in on the Saturday to be induced but thaat never worked. When they broke my waters in the early hours of Monday morning they were full of meconium as well. They had to put a clip on her head inside me to monitor her heartbeat. The pain when they did this is something I cannot describe as all I could see was white lights and I thought I was going to die. I was only 4 cm dilated and they found it so hard to reach up and put the clip on. Anyway I ended up having a c-section on Monday afternoon and I lost a huge amount of blood and so they made my husband and our baby (she was perfectly fine) go out of the room. It was ages before I could finally see them. It was not the experience I wanted at all.

    I’m sorry things didn’t go so well with you either. x

    Thanks so much for linking up at #KCACOLS. Hope you come back again next Sunday

    Rachel x
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    1. Goodness, that sounds awful. I can’t imagine having the monitor put inside without an epidural. I’m so sorry you experienced that and thank you for sharing your story x

  13. I do feel for you. My great friend had her babe a few weeks before mine in London and had a truly hellish experience over 4 days. It’s still affecting her 11 years later as she hasn’t forgiven the hospital and staff. For her it’s definitely been PND with complications going back to her own traumatic childhood. Her daughter thrived and is doing incredibly well in many respects, but I know the birth has impacted on them as a family. As friends we can never talk about the experience as it causes such deep grief remembering the emotional and physical pain she went through. There are organisations that can help with this if you were minded to go down that route. I think you’re incredibly brave to write about this. All the best, Jo

    1. Thank you for reading and your kind words. I’m sorry your friend has struggled with this for so long. I’ve mostly made peace with it now but this is only due to having therapy for PND/anxiety and dealing with it then. So important to raise awareness. Thanks X

  14. I’m so sorry you had such a traumatic experience. Though I had a ‘straightforward’ birth with A, I was still hugely affected by some aspects of it and was terrified about giving birth a second time. Thankfully, hypnobirthing has helped me seize some control and even if things don’t go to plan, I’m hoping I can gain some control! Thanks for linking up to #MarvMondays. Kaye xo

  15. Such a shame this was your experience.You really went through it!On my last baby they gave me an epidural which only numbed one side, shouted at me when they wanted me to sit up to do a spinal block and I said I couldn’t because I was sat on the baby’s head and the pain was horrific. Vomiting during the section and a haemorrhage to top it off.I definitely think it contributed to my PND x

  16. Thank you for sharing your story. I do feel more should be done to help women who have suffered birth trauma. I had massive postpartum haemorrhage and had to be rushed to theatre soon after birth. It was the scariest moment of my life, and the hours after birth aren’t a great memory for me. It was partly the fault of the midwife, who yanked out my placenta saying ‘we need to get it out or you’ll have to go to theatre’ after an hour of trying to deliver it. It really affected me, but I was never asked how I was feeling about it afterwards. No one ever really explained too much to me either, a consultant mentioned it could happen again in feature labours, but that’s it, which has left me terrified to ever consider having more children. I don’t think there is enough support for this sort of thing!
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  17. Thank you for sharing your story. I had an elective caesarean as my baby was breech so it was a much calmer affair than your experience, but I still feel bad that I didn’t have a natural birth and many of my wishes (such as immediate skin to skin) were ignored too. My hospital do, however, offer a service where you can talk through your birth with a midwife and this can be accessed at any time you choose, even if it’s regarding a birth that occurred years ago, before the service was offered. I think more hospitals should offer this as it could help a lot of women. #MarvMondays
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  18. Wow…I just travelled back a few years…we all need that chance to tell ‘our’ story. I am sorry this was your experience. It is such an incredible experience that you simply cannot be truly ‘prepared’ for. Thanks for sharing. #TwinklyTuesday

  19. Thanks for sharing this. It must have been so difficult to be ok with all of that. I’m also now a little scared of birth, but hoping that positive thinking and trying to stay in control of the birth might help me. I’m so sorry that was your first experience, thanks again for the honesty, it’s hard to share a story like that. #twinklytuesday

  20. It’s always interesting to read others birth stories whether they are full of positivity or if they are a bit negative. Sorry you had a negative time and I hope that writing it all down helps you in some way. Despite what you went through its wonderful that you can share your experiences with others to help them. Thanks for linking up with #TwinklyTuesday
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  21. I’m so sorry you had some real negatives. Birth gets over medicalised sometimes – it is needed but going back to basics after – like skin on skin and bonding is just as important. I think a full debrief is needed afterwards if requested (my friend got this with her first). Hopefully posts like this continue to raise awareness and promote change xx #thetruthabout

  22. I’ve read other blog posts arguing for better post-natal mental health care (Leigh of Headspace Perspective campaigns for it). It makes complete sense that these things should be addressed – I think there is much more openness and discussion about mental health in general these days and the health service needs to provide better support because so many women – like yourself, do have very traumatic experiences and it isn’t just done and dusted once it’s established that everyone is still alive. It astonishes me to read about the lack of care that some people seem to receive – particularly after giving birth. Something definitely needs to change. Thanks so much for linking up to #thetruthabout again Laura. X
    Sam recently posted…The Truth about… #83My Profile

    1. Thank you, Sam. You’re completely right (and I love Leigh’s blog). The worst thing is the difference in services depending on where you love. Total postcode lotto. Thanks for reading x

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