You may have heard that only soldiers experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after fighting in battle or witnessing horrific events. But the truth is anyone can be affected by PTSD and it’s especially prevalent among new moms who experience a distressing labour and birth. In this case, it’s called birth trauma.
Could you be experiencing birth trauma?
According to the International Birth Trauma Association, PTSD is the term used to describe a set of normal reactions to a traumatic, scary or bad experience. Birth trauma can affect you at any age, regardless of how many children you have had. If you’re struggling to eat or sleep (even when your baby sleeps), are plagued by negative thoughts and feelings, worry incessantly about your little one’s wellbeing or feel upset and isolated after a difficult labour and birth, you may be experiencing birth trauma.
You’re not alone – many new moms experience some degree of anxiety after bringing a new life into the world, says Dr Lavinia Lumu, a psychiatrist at Crescent Clinic in Johannesburg. In fact, statistics suggest that as many as 44% of women feel that childbirth is traumatic and around 15% of new moms experience PTSD after giving birth.
While it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and anxious as a new mom, these feelings should not take centre stage, become debilitating or prevent you from taking care of your child. If this is the case, it’s time to seek professional help and share your feelings with family and friends.
Signs and symptoms you shouldn’t ignore
Having the “baby blues” (feeling emotional or teary for a few days after the birth due to hormonal fluctuations) is usual after the birth of a child. However, the following are common symptoms of PTSD:
- Intrusive or recurrent memories of the event and feeling as if you’re experiencing the traumatic labour or birth all over again.
- Regular nightmares or night terrors relating to the event.
- Trying to avoid any thoughts, feelings, people, places or details of the event.
- Avoiding your baby after the birth or struggling to bond or breastfeed.
- Persistent anxiety that could manifest as irritability, difficulty sleeping, hyper-vigilance or feeling on edge.
- Feelings of anxiety and of not being able to cope, accompanied by panic attacks.
- Feeling a sense of detachment from reality and those around you.
Isn’t this just postnatal depression?
The short answer is no. Although birth trauma can overlap with postnatal depression, it is different
as it’s linked to anxiety and relates directly to the labour and birth experience. “While it’s possible to experience both birth trauma and postnatal depression at the same time, postnatal depression isn’t necessarily preceded by a traumatic event and can occur at any time during pregnancy or after birth,” explains Dr Lumu.
The classic symptoms of postnatal depression include:
- A constant low mood
- Feelings of helplessness
- Excessive tearfulness
- Not being able to bond with your baby after the first six to eight weeks
- Changes in appetite, energy and sleep
- Feelings of anxiety from time to time.
Birth trauma is linked to the following, as listed by the International Birth Trauma Association:
- A lengthy labour, or short and very painful labour
- Poor pain relief options
- Feelings of loss of control
- High levels of medical intervention
- Traumatic or emergency deliveries
- Impersonal treatment or problems with hospital staff
- Not being listened to
- Lack of information or explanation
- Lack of privacy and dignity
- Fear for your baby’s safety
- A stillbirth
- Medical emergencies linked to your baby, followed by a stay in the neonatal intensive care unit
- Poor postnatal care
- Previous trauma (for example, in childhood, with a previous birth, or domestic violence).
Tips on how to deal with birth trauma
The first step is to stop blaming yourself or feeling guilty for your feelings, says Dr Lumu. Once you’ve identified that your anxiety is heightened, it’s important to seek help from a healthcare provider, such as your midwife, GP or gynaecologist. You will be assessed and referred to a psychologist or psychiatrist depending on the type of therapy or medication that’s needed.
You can also take the following steps:
- Talk to your partner or family about how you feel – even if this means lots of tears.
- Ask your partner or family to assist you with looking after your baby or other children.
- Join support groups in your community.
For more information or support relating to PTSD, birth trauma or postnatal depression, call the South African Depression and Anxiety Group on 0800 12 13 14 or visit sadag.org.