Did you Have a Traumatic First Birth? How to prepare for your next birth, even if you can’t control the outcome.

1. Understand what birth trauma is and how it affects you and your family.

Trauma doesn’t look the same for everyone, most notably in the context of birth. Unfortunately, women aren’t encouraged to share the reality of their birth, and regardless of the health outcome of their child(ren) their experiences are often shrugged off. We are doing mothers a great disservice by not honoring their experiences in the birth and the postpartum period. Mothers need space and time to heal, time to process their birth. We need doctors, family members and friends to understand that a healthy baby cannot erase birth trauma.

I’ll say it again. A healthy baby cannot erase birth trauma.

Time cannot erase birth trauma. Nothing can erase birth trauma, but hopefully with support and intentional healing, birth trauma can feel like less of a burden.

If you google ‘birth trauma’ (which I did for the sake of this article) your first results will be specific to the newborn’s physical health, i.e. damage to tissues and organs, levels of cognitive brain function, etc. Scroll down a little further and you’ll learn about the physical trauma sustained by the birthing person, i.e. perineal tearing, broken tailbones, etc. Then in third place (at least for whatever list google decided to throw out to me) is discussion about emotional birth trauma. I imagine that most people can relate to this order of importance prevailing throughout their pregnancy, birth and postpartum experience.

Baby’s health comes first, then mother’s physical health (but often only in the context of the baby’s safety) and then finally everyone’s emotional well-being. Often women are made to feel substandard because of the heavy prioritization of the baby.

2. Ignore invalid arguments that aim to dismiss your birth trauma

  • “You’re so lucky your baby survived.” -  Yea, obviously you are glad that your baby is alive, but your feelings of disappointment, sadness, anger are valid. When someone points out the health of your baby they are minimizing your feelings and experience. This could make you feel like you should forget your emotional or physical trauma because “at least your baby didn’t die.”  This concept of comparative suffering in birth is extremely problematic. We do this to each other and we do it to ourselves, and it’s a bandaid at best and devastating at worst.

  • “They were just doing it to save your baby” - There are many reasons why women experience trauma during their birth experience. I’m not going to list them all here for fear of leaving someone out or providing fuel for minimizing, but I have attended enough births, listened to enough testimony and understand trauma well enough to know that a lot of this trauma is preventable. Denying a woman in extreme pain an epidural for no reason other than the inconvenience, doing a pelvic exam on a woman in labor who is screaming for the doctor to stop, and flat out denying the plausibility of a woman’s past sexual trauma are all choices that were made by the care team. I’m sorry if you didn’t feel listened to, and that your birth team couldn’t empathize with you enough to handle this situation properly. You deserved better. You deserve better if you should choose to have another

  • “Birth rape isn’t real” - I challenge you to name another situation when it is okay to hold a woman’s legs open against her will and stick your hand inside of her. I challenge you to think of anytime it would be okay to touch or look at a woman’s vulva, vagina, or rectum without express consent. Just because it has become normalized does not mean that it is acceptable. Women are significantly less likely to endure lasting trauma from an emergency situation when they were present, given some control, participation and respect in a situation that is largely out of their control. Sometimes in birth there are emergencies and painful and uncomfortable things must be done, however an emergency situation does not warrant complete loss of autonomy or worth.  The imbalance of power between care providers and a lack of empathy for the birthing person in the moment allow birth rape to happen. Women deserve better.

  • “All birth is hard” - Yes, birth is hard. Pregnancy, birth and parenting can be so hard, regardless of how your baby was born. It is both confusing and surprising to me that the difficulty of childbirth is used as a way for women to dismiss other women instead of lifting them up and joining them in persevering through the intensity of childbirth. Birth is hard, but it doesn’t have to be traumatic. Let me say this louder for the people in the back- BIRTH DOESN’T HAVE TO BE TRAUMATIC.

3. Work to process through the trauma.

Most women can process their births on their own with support from friends and family. Others, most often women who have sustained trauma, might need a more targeted approach or professional support. Lean on friends, family, your doula, if you had one and if that’s not enough reach out to a therapist or counselor. Most cities have great resources for women who need support postpartum.

4. Put together a birth team that will listen to you, support you, and put your needs and priorities first.

Sit down and really think about what kind of birth you would like going into your next pregnancy. Find a care provider who is not only tolerant of your plans, but supportive. Interview 10 if you have to. Then, hire a doula. Your birth doula should help you debrief from your first experience as well as talk about ways to advocate for yourself and a birth doula will be the only one in the room who is solely focused on protecting your emotional wellbeing. If one is available, try to find a doula who has training and experience working with women who have experienced trauma. Of course you will not be able to guarantee the outcome of your birth, but you can surround yourself with people who will provide compassionate and competent care.

This isn’t meant to be an all-inclusive guide to healing birth trauma, but instead a look at a small part of the process. If you are finding yourself needing support please reach out for help:

If you need local birth support in Buffalo :

  1. Crisis Services is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 716-834-3131

  2. wnypostpartum.com

  3. Me! I’m a Buffalo birth doula who specializes in supporting women through the lens of trauma informed care. Please fill out a contact form and I’ll get back to you as quickly as possible.