Postnatal post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or birth trauma, is a type of anxiety disorder that affects many women who experienced a difficult or traumatizing childbirth. Many mothers do not expect to have a medical emergency that threatens the life of their baby or themselves. This can cause immense psychological damage that may result in birth trauma PTSD.
Can You Develop PTSD From A Traumatic Childbirth?
Yes. Traumatic childbirth that results in serious birth injury or death of a child can cause birth trauma PTSD for the mother.
According to Postpartum Support International, about 9% of mothers experience birth trauma PTSD. Further, one study from researchers at the University of Warwick and Northampton General Hospital in the U.K. found that around 33% of mothers who experienced a traumatic delivery develop birth trauma PTSD.
Situations that may make birth trauma PTSD more likely include:
- Birth injury to the child
- Child’s stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)
- Emergency C-section
- High levels of medical intervention
- Lack of privacy and/or dignity during the birth
- Lack of postnatal care
- Perineal trauma
- Poor communication
- Prolonged labor
- Severe postpartum hemorrhage
- Severe preeclampsia
- Use of forceps or vacuum delivery
According to researchers, a mother who feels a lack of control, support, and proper care has a higher risk of developing birth trauma PTSD.
Women who have experienced rape or sexual abuse are also more likely to suffer from birth trauma PTSD.
Postpartum depression (PPD) is another common risk to mothers. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 1 in 9 mothers experience postpartum depression. Oftentimes, birth trauma PTSD is misdiagnosed as PPD. It is important to treat these conditions individually since antidepressants will only treat PPD and not birth trauma.
Signs of Postnatal PTSD
Since postpartum depression can be confused with postnatal PTSD, it is important to recognize the signs of birth trauma.
According to the Birth Trauma Association, there are four signs of birth trauma PTSD:
- Avoiding things that remind you of the trauma, such as seeing the hospital where you gave birth or avoiding meeting women with newborn children.
- Feeling constantly alert, irritable, jumpy, and fearful that something terrible is going to happen to your child.
- Feeling unhappy or guilty that you are responsible for your traumatic childbirth. You may also have difficulty remembering parts of the birth.
- Re-experiencing the trauma through flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive memories.
These four main symptoms may also be accompanied by physical pain, nausea, shakiness, sweating, lack of sleep, intense mood swings, reckless behavior, and panic attacks.
Can Fathers Develop PTSD From Traumatic Births?
Mothers are often more likely to develop birth trauma PTSD since they were the ones delivering their baby and felt the physical pain firsthand. However, fathers are also at risk for developing PTSD from witnessing traumatic childbirths.
Marian Knight of the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit (NPEU) at Oxford University conducted a study that interviewed 35 women that experienced life-threatening complications during childbirth and 11 fathers or partners to learn about their long-term impact.
“Many of these emergencies happen during labour or immediately after, and involve severe bleeding. The mums are severely ill and need lots of care. And while everyone is running around looking after mum, it can affect dads too.”
— Marian Knight, Professor of NPEU at Oxford University
The study found that many couples felt that access to therapy was important in the healing process. This lack of follow-up care for mothers and fathers alike can lead to birth trauma PTSD.
Birth trauma PTSD for fathers can be very psychologically debilitating. Knight recalled that one father in the study was unable to work for more than five years after their child’s birth because of PTSD symptoms.
Treatment for Birth Trauma PTSD
Unfortunately, many mothers and fathers feel they were not provided with proper follow-up care from their medical team after experiencing a traumatic childbirth. Thankfully, there are some treatment options and resources available to families that are experiencing birth trauma PTSD.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): This is a common treatment for those suffering from PTSD. CBT is a treatment that focuses on how your thoughts and experiences reflect your behavior. Cognitive-behavioral therapists can focus on your trauma and how to cope in your daily life.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: This consists of combining rhythmic eye movements while remembering the traumatic event to stimulate information processing in the brain. This can help to recover and cope with the event.
- Anti-anxiety medication: Many mothers and fathers who experience birth trauma may develop anxiety. Although medication cannot cure birth trauma PTSD itself, doctors may prescribe anti-anxiety medication to ease symptoms.
- Other options: Staying physically healthy and taking time to heal emotionally can greatly help ease birth trauma PTSD symptoms.
For additional support, call the hotline for Postpartum Support International at 1-800-944-4773 (4PPD) to speak with a representative that can help connect you with local resources.
In the case of an emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.