The aftermath of a traumatic birth experience

Up to 30 per cent of mums say their birth experience was traumatic.
Up to 30 per cent of mums say their birth experience was traumatic.  Photo: Getty Images

"Please, please, please amputate my leg," she deliriously begged her obstetrician, hoping it would relieve her of the excruciating pain. "I won't hold it against you, I promise."

It was around that time that her unborn baby's condition started to deteriorate dramatically. "Prepare for c-section," she heard someone call out. Moments later an alarm went off in the corridors of the hospital; this was the signal for all the theatre staff in the small Hong Kong hospital to drop everything and report for duty.

"The last thing I remember is everyone rushing around in the theatre," says Shona Parker.

It was Shona's first baby and experience of childbirth, and it turned out to be nothing like she had expected. "I had romantic dreams [of childbirth] and had crafted an idealistic birth plan, which included the baby slipping into the world in a darkened room with music playing softly," says Shona, who now lives in Sydney. "The reality was starkly different."

Shona had been unconscious when her son was born, and was shocked when she later received an invoice from the hospital that listed 'resuscitation of infant'. She says much had happened that she just didn't know about, and it was only later that she came to realise how close she had been to tragedy.

"I wanted to talk about what had happened but my obstetrician was very matter-of-fact and wouldn't discuss it with me, and [my husband] had already moved on," says Shona, who later had trouble bonding with her son.

"My isolation grew and I spent more time at work away from home and feeling very depressed."

Her demons from her traumatic birth experience stayed with her for over two years, and her weight plummeted to just 45 kilograms. Eventually her GP encouraged Shona to talk about how she was feeling, prescribed her some medication and encouraged her to get counselling.

With the help of others, Shona realised she had been suffering from postnatal depression and post traumatic stress disorder following the birth of her son.

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And she is not alone. According to research from Griffith University in 2010, 30 per cent of women in Australia find their birth experience traumatic, with 6 per cent of these women going on to develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It can also be a contributing factor for women developing postnatal depression. Daniella Scheelings, helpline supervisor at Post and Antenatal Depression Association (PANDA), says many women PANDA speak to have had a traumatic birth experience.

"They could have feared for their own life or the life of their baby because of the level of intervention," says Daniella. "Things can go wrong in childbirth."

She says some of the signs women should be looking for to see if they are suffering from postnatal depression following a traumatic birth experience are changes in emotions, moods, sleeping patterns and eating patterns. "[Also] becoming more teary or irritable, or sometimes women can feel they are quite detached from their babies," says Daniella. "Every aspect of a person's life is affected when they get postnatal depression."

As for post traumatic stress disorder, women should seek help if they find themselves very preoccupied and consumed with the thoughts and feelings around the birth. And they shouldn't feel ashamed about seeking assistance.

"Women sit with a lot of fear about seeking help after a traumatic birth experience [because] often their child is fine," explains Daniella. "Well-meaning family members say, 'Oh, you've got your baby. Don't worry. You're both happy and healthy, and alive. Just put that behind you, you'll get over it.' But women don't get over it. We know that trauma doesn't just disappear; it needs very specialised treatment."

Daniella also highlights a forgotten group when it comes to the aftermath of a traumatic birth experience: the partners in the room. "We have also had a number of callers to the helpline who have been dads who have witnessed their wife having a traumatic experience," says Daniella. "Many men are traumatised by being a helpless bystander and not being able to affect any change, and can go on to have their own experience of postnatal depression and post traumatic stress disorder."

But what can women and men do to better prepare for a traumatic birth experience? Knowledge is the key, according to Philip Boyce, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Sydney and head of the perinatal mental health research team.

"The better informed the women are, the less likely they are to be traumatised by what goes on," says Professor Boyce. "I think women need to know what will be happening when they go through labour and given very clear explanations."

He also thinks it would help women to get over the post traumatic stress if they are given the opportunity to speak about their birth experience afterwards. "If women are asked was it traumatic for you and would you like to talk about it, I think that [would be] very helpful for them."

If only Shona was asked those two simple questions following the birth of her son. But the good news is that there is help available, and a full recovery is possible.

"The counselling really helped me for the next two of my babies' births," says Shona. "Which were not only natural but also enjoyable, as much as a birth can be."

For help and support, contact the PANDA helpline on 1300 726 306 or visit panda.org.au. You can also contact the beyondblue support service on 1300 22 4636 or visit beyondblue.org.au.

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