Bonding over shared birth trauma can help recovery, new study finds

Picture: Getty Images
Picture: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

Birth trauma is a bonding experience that can help women process the event, new research has found.

A new study by the University of Oxford followed 164 women in the US who were either pregnant with or who had given birth to their first babies within the last six months. Researchers examined the degree of 'identify fusion' – feeling close to a group of people with shared experiences - formed between the women and assessed this against multiple factors.

Bonds were found to be strongest among new mothers and women who felt their experiences to be more painful or traumatic than a 'typical' birth. These women reported closer bonds with mothers with similar stories, which was often due to feeling hospital staff or other care providers had dismissed or downplayed their experience as 'unexceptional', they found.

The findings highlighted the importance of women finding others with shared experiences to aid post-event processing, which has been linked to better psychological health, researchers said. Adding further research was warranted into how this could be used to positively shape approaches to treatment.

It's something Executive Director of the Australasian Birth Trauma Association (ABTA) Amy Dawes knows all too well. The national charity works to support women through birth trauma recovery.

Describing it as a complex issue that could be debilitating if not properly addressed, Ms Dawes said while for some families birth trauma is immediately evident – such as following a life threatening incident – for others it can show up months or even years after the birth. It can have devastating, long lasting consequences, too. Both for physical traumas such as severe tearing, incontinence or prolapse, as well as psychological trauma and many women develop PTSD post-birth, Ms Dawes said.

ABTA operates a private support group for women who have experienced birth trauma as a safe space to discuss their experiences and links women to services and mentors who each have lived experiences of birth trauma, which Ms Dawes said was crucial to ensuring women felt heard.

"All of these things are extremely isolating if you don't know frequently they occur. In Australia one in three women identify their birth as traumatic. One in 10 women are diagnosed with PTSD in the first-year post-partum," she said.

"They are huge statistics, but it's not common knowledge, so women can feel incredibly isolated and feel they were the only one. For many women we support they have spent far too long suffering in silence."

Women can often come to distrust the medical system following a traumatic experience and can also be misdiagnosed. This, Ms Dawes said, can heighten the need to link in with women with a shared experience.

"It's incredibly important to connect with someone knows who what you are going through and who will not tell you how you should be feeling," she said.

"There's a huge power in storytelling, we find women reaching out to our community just need to share their story, because they haven't been given an opportunity."