Birth trauma is something that – like postnatal depression and anxiety – is becoming more openly discussed and accepted in our society.
For a long time women suffered in silence when it came to processing and healing from a traumatic labour. They experienced births that were out of their control, and medical interventions made without their consent by doctors who gave very little thought to the emotional state of the mother.
If you know a mother who has just experienced a traumatic birth, here are some ideas for ways to help support her.
1. Validate her feelings and just hear her out
After the trauma that her mind and body has just been through, talking is one way to let her get it all out – even the worst bits – and begin to process the experience. Be present with her and let her know you are there to listen.
2. Let her mourn the birth she wanted to have, but didn’t
Know that it’s okay to grieve the way she gave birth, and it doesn’t take away from the love she has for that new little baby. Having a traumatic birth wasn’t on her radar, and the loss, disappointment and pain she feels is valid.
3. Know that healing is mental and physical
Encourage her with the knowledge that although it will take time to heal, the feelings won’t always be this raw. There will be a time when she will look back on her birth and the details won’t be as acutely painful.
4. Don’t let worry about future pregnancies and births take over
Help her keep life in perspective and remind her that it’s not the time to worry about future children or speak in fear about future births, just focus on the beautiful human you’re holding in your arms.
5. How you birth doesn’t define you as a mother or woman
When it’s appropriate, gently emphasise that the way a mother gives birth isn’t an identity tag or label, it doesn’t say anything about her as a person or as a mother. Some things are out of our control, and we do the best with the unique set of circumstances we have at the time.
6. Encourage her to try a postpartum support group with other mothers who have had similar ordeals
Hearing the stories of others may give her some perspective and help her feel less alone and will also further validate her feelings. Organisations like BirthTalk.org and the Australasian Birth Trauma Association have incredible resources for mums to turn to when facing this difficult time.
7. Gently remind her that she doesn’t have to feel guilty for the emotions she’s riding out
There will be days when he feels like it’s all too much, and other days where the emotions are manageable. Don’t try and read too much into the ups and downs and just welcome them both as part of the healing process.
8. Encourage her to seek professional help
It’s normal to have a mix of strong emotions in the first days and weeks after birth, but if strong feelings of trauma and grief continue without sign of improvement, it could be helpful and healing to see a counsellor or psychologist.
9. Show her you care by looking after her house and feeding her
Popping around with a meal, or doing a load of washing or dishes is a big help when a mother is feeling traumatised and fragile. Clean surfaces and folded washing can be just what she needs to help clear her thoughts.
10. Don’t expect that healing will mean that she can now see the birth as a ‘positive experience’
“Sometimes someone isn’t ready to see the bright side,” writes Victoria Erickson, author of Edge of Wonder. “Sometimes they need to sit with the shadow first. So be a friend and sit with them. Make the darkness beautiful.”
11. Finally – support hubby too
Partners can find watching their beloved going through childbirth extremely confronting, and even more-so when the birth has been traumatic. If you can help the mother and her partner have some alone time by taking the baby for an hour or two, this will give them a moment to breathe, to talk and hopefully support each other better. And if you think Dad is suffering from real depression or anxiety symptoms, remember that dads can have postnatal depression too – let them know that help is available. PANDA have some great information for dads struggling after the birth of their baby.