Giving birth is a hugely transformational event in a woman’s life. While most pregnant women take time to prepare themselves for the event of childbirth – creating birth plans, researching hospitals or birth centers, interventions and taking birthing classes - most moms don’t really expect that the actual birth itself could leave long lasting psychological and physical scars. But studies show that between 25-34% of moms actually do have a traumatic birth experience - and that some of these new moms go on to develop PTSD from their experience. I was one of those women and I want to share that you CAN begin to heal. Here are 10 ways to start the process:
Be easy on yourself
Know that even if the birthing event did not turn out how you pictured, or you experienced physical or psychological trauma, it is NOT your fault and has no reflection on the kind of parent you are. Grieving is a very personal process and you must give yourself space to process and heal as you do. In addition to feelings of sadness and grief, some moms have trouble connecting with their baby initially. It’s important to accept that this is a very natural reaction to a traumatic event and to acknowledge it within yourself without judgement.
Give yourself time
Don’t rush the process. Giving yourself space to grieve and heal is important, but so is acknowledging that you’re not quite ready yet. In the first few weeks or months after your baby comes home, you may be too exhausted – or busy – to appropriately process what happened. That’s ok!
Admit that you need to heal
Even if your birth looked ok on the outside, it may not have been what you desired or pictured. Be kind to yourself and acknowledge that you still likely need to heal. To do so, it would still be beneficial for you to take the time to talk about the experience with your significant other, a close friend or a professional.
Be Prepared for Flashbacks or Unwanted Thoughts
Although I have professional experience around this topic, this one caught me off guard personally. The first time I returned to the hospital for my postpartum check up, I completely broke down. Traveling the roads close to the hospital still bring back those memories, years later. It’s very common for this to happen. The anniversary of your baby’s birth can bring about these same feelings. But know that it’s totally normal. Just acknoledging that this can happen can help you be more prepared and forgiving of yourself.
If you’re trying to heal – or even trying to prepare yourself for another birth – it can be really helpful to try to gain an understanding of what happened (or what went wrong). This can be as simple as requesting your medical records, talking to your partner or other family members, your doula or midwife - anyone who may have been with you during delivery. Hearing other's accounts of the event can be challenging, but it also helps you gain perspective. If you're having trouble remembering, you may need to work with a professional to uncover what you may have suppressed.
Keep a Journal
Many moms find it very helpful to write down their thoughts and feelings as the days go on. In a way, writing it down helps you break away from yourself for just a bit. It can also help you follow your recovery, since you’ll see improvements over time. No matter if your birth professionals were kind and supportive or made you feel dismissed and helpless, writing them a letter (whether you send it or not) can be particularly healing.
Consider Joining a Support Group
There are many groups available, online and locally. Many moms (and their partners), find it to be very helpful to join a support group and get the reinforcement that you aren’t alone. For some though, it can be overwhelming to experience others’ grief so similar to your own. Try it out and see for yourself!
If you’re feeling anxious, learning mindful meditation and breathing techniques can be really helpful. Even taking a minute or two while you’re on the go will bring more peace to your everyday life. To give it a try, find a comfortable seated position and focus on your breath – in and out – for 60 seconds. You can set a timer on your phone or use an app. I’m a big fan of HeadSpace and they even have a free trial/learning period.
Seek Professional Help
There is certainly a spectrum of traumatic birth experiences and if yours falls on the more intense side, then you may need to take an even closer look inside your heart and seek professional support. Between 9-13% of moms do experience PTSD after a traumatic birth event. Symptoms can include having intrusive thoughts and nightmares, avoiding stimuli that reminds you of the birth, having difficulty sleeping, experiencing anxiety or panic attacks or feelings of detachment. For more information on symptoms and support, you check out this link. If this feels like you, know that it happens to many moms and there is no reason to be ashamed. Take care of yourself and be sure to reach out to a mental health professional in your area for help.
Healing doesn't mean the damage never existed. It means the damage no longer controls your life.”
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Disclaimer: Although Jennifer Howard is a licensed therapist, this podcast/blog - or any information listed on this site - is not a substitute for therapy or professional medical advice. If you are experiencing symptoms of postpartum or perinatal mental health disorders, please schedule an appointment with a therapist or doctor in your area. If you are in crisis, please call 911 or seek assistance from your local emergency room. Additionally, Postpartum Support International has a wealth of online information and local support for new parents. You can call their Helpline (1-800-944-4773) or text (503-894-9453) anytime for support. You are not alone.