About 4% of women experience post-traumatic stress (PTSD) disorder after giving birth – that’s about 30,000 women a year in the UK. We hear a lot of harrowing stories from women about long, intensely painful labours, emergency caesareans, brutal forceps births and postpartum haemorrhages. For some women, labour is a genuinely terrifying experience – perhaps something it’s hard to appreciate if you’re a midwife who sees women give birth every day.
For a minority of women, the trauma has a single cause: something has gone unavoidably wrong in the birth (a placenta accreta, for example). In those cases, women often tell us that they’re grateful for the good quality care that has helped to save their life, or their baby’s life. But for the majority of women who come to us, a big part of their trauma comes from the way they feel they were treated. So they’ll tell us that their pleas for pain relief were ignored, for example, or that they knew something was wrong but the midwife or obstetrician didn’t believe us. Some women even tell us that they were laughed at or shouted at. We hear stories of procedures (such as internal examinations) being carried out without their consent. Very often, they’ll say that when there is an emergency, no one has explained what’s happening so they fear the worst.
What we’d like to see change is for health professionals to listen to what women are telling them. If a woman says she’s in agonising pain, for example, she probably is. Kindness and sympathy go a long way. If a woman has had a traumatic birth, telling her to stop making a fuss or to be grateful her baby is healthy isn’t going to be helpful – the opposite in fact. Minimising a woman’s trauma makes it more likely that she’ll go on to suffer PTSD.
And don’t forget partners in all this. Watching a traumatic birth while fearing that you are about to lose your partner or baby can be extremely scary and have a devastating impact. So we would love to see more understanding of this amongst professionals.
Finally, women always remember the midwife who birthed their baby – you may only be physically with a woman for a short time but you’ll stay in her memory for the rest of her life. When women share their stories of poor care, they’ll often make a point of mentioning the one midwife who was kind to them. It’s a huge responsibility – but it can also be a huge honour.
Kim Thomas, CEO, Birth Trauma Association
Ayers, Susan, Fear of childbirth, postnatal post-traumatic stress disorder and midwifery care Midwifery, Volume 30, Issue 2, 145 – 148
Beck, C.T. Post-traumatic stress disorder due to childbirth: the aftermath. Nurs. Res. 2004; 53: 216–224
Dikmen Yildiz, P., Ayers, S., & Phillips, L. (2017). The prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder in pregnancy and after birth: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 208, 634–645
For more information see: birthtraumaassociation.org.uk