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What is birth trauma and how can you support new mothers following a traumatic birth?

This week, the spotlight shines on birth trauma, prompting calls for a national strategy to enhance maternity care post a parliamentary inquiry. The bipartisan inquiry, led by Conservative MP Theo Clarke and Labour MP Rosie Duffield, uncovered a concerning trend of substandard care being normalized, with women often treated as mere inconveniences. Additionally, former Made In Chelsea star Louise Thompson shares her poignant experience in her upcoming book Lucky: Learning to Live Again, recounting the birth trauma she endured while delivering her son Leo. Thompson’s candid narrative sheds light on the alarming prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among new mothers, a sentiment echoed by the Birth Trauma Association. Research suggests that around 4-5% of women experience PTSD after childbirth in the UK, with a significantly higher number grappling with varying degrees of trauma symptoms. In the wake of these revelations, there is a pressing need to redefine birth trauma and provide robust support mechanisms for affected mothers.

What does traumatic birth mean?

Lesley Gilchrist, a midwife from My Expert Midwife and a birth expert at The Baby Show, emphasizes that what constitutes a traumatic birth can vary from person to person. However, she identifies several key factors that may contribute.

Firstly, Gilchrist highlights the importance of understanding the reality of childbirth. If women are not adequately prepared for what childbirth entails and have received misinformation, they may perceive their midwife’s advice as adversarial, setting the stage for a potentially traumatic experience. Gilchrist emphasizes the necessity for expectant mothers to be informed about the realities of childbirth to better prepare them for the journey ahead.

Additionally, Gilchrist emphasizes the significance of having a sense of control during labor and delivery. She suggests that it is not solely the pain of childbirth that can lead to trauma but rather the loss of control. Knowing one’s options for pain relief and understanding the potential limitations can empower women and help them maintain a sense of control throughout the birthing process.

Lastly, Gilchrist underscores the importance of receiving kindness and compassion from healthcare providers during labor and delivery. When faced with dismissive or uncompassionate attitudes, women and their partners may feel vulnerable and lose trust in the care they are receiving, further exacerbating feelings of loss of control and distress. Gilchrist emphasizes the need for healthcare providers to provide supportive and compassionate care to help mitigate the risk of traumatic birth experiences.

How do you recover from a traumatic birth?

Recovery from a traumatic birth can involve both physical and psychological challenges. While physical trauma may heal relatively quickly, the psychological impact can be intricate and enduring.

Lesley Gilchrist emphasizes the complexities of postpartum anxiety following a traumatic birth, which can manifest in catastrophic thinking, intrusive thoughts, and debilitating anxiety. Such psychological distress may require specialized therapy for effective resolution.

Gilchrist advocates for seeking qualified therapists proficient in addressing psychological trauma. Therapy offers valuable coping mechanisms and strategies to manage symptoms, particularly for individuals with pre-existing anxiety. Additionally, she recommends exploring hypnobirthing techniques, which can aid in calming the mind and alleviating intrusive thoughts through deep meditation.

Despite the challenges, Gilchrist reassures that appropriate treatment and therapy can significantly improve outcomes, empowering individuals to navigate and overcome the aftermath of traumatic childbirth.

What support might new mothers need? 

Experiencing a traumatic birth can elevate the likelihood of postnatal depression, underscoring the importance of establishing a supportive environment to mitigate its effects.

Lesley Gilchrist emphasizes the significance of family support in this regard, advocating for practical assistance such as cleaning, cooking, and laundry instead of traditional gifts. Gilchrist stresses that what new mothers truly need is practical help, like lasagne, not symbolic gestures like lilies. Moreover, she advises against offering to take the baby away from the mother, as women who have undergone traumatic births often prefer to remain close to their infants. Instead, Gilchrist highlights the value of simply being present and available to offer emotional support during this challenging time.

What resources are available?

Gilchrist underscores the significance of support networks for new mothers and their partners grappling with birth trauma.

“Platforms like Facebook offer invaluable peer support, notably through groups like the Birth Trauma Support Group,” she explains. “Additionally, there’s a dedicated website, the Birth Trauma Association, which provides resources, guidance, and a listening ear for those in need.”

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