Moving Forward After a Traumatic or Difficult Birth Experience

Traumatic Birth

Once your baby arrives, you may find yourself having negative thoughts about the birth. You may be thrilled to see your baby and also feel disappointed, frustrated, and angry. You may feel traumatized by what you experienced giving birth. Mothers and parents are often told, “You have a healthy baby, don’t worry about your birth. That’s in the past.” This is not helpful. What you need is someone to understand that your experience was traumatic for you.

It is estimated that 1 in 3 mothers experience birth trauma. Birth trauma is emotional or psychological distress due to events that took place during the birth process. Birth trauma can happen as a result of vastly different childbirth experiences. You may have experienced an emergency situation in which you or your baby were in danger of injury or death. Or you may have had a medically uncomplicated birth. Birth trauma often results from feelings of mistreatment, extreme fear, loss of dignity and hopelessness. Feeling that you were not listened to or supported during the birth can also contribute to birth trauma. You may feel sad because you didn’t have the birth you hoped for. Mothers often have mixed emotions after giving birth. It is okay to feel upset about the birth and happy to have your baby at the same time.

Experiencing birth trauma can be very painful and isolating. Some parents will experience distressing symptoms such as:

  • Re-living or re-experiencing traumatic aspects of the birth
  • Nightmares and flashbacks
  • Avoidance of people, places or situations related to the birth (for example: avoidance of hospitals)
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Feelings of detachment (for example: feeling distant from your baby) Episodes of frequent crying
  • Changes in appetite
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy.

You may find it difficult to talk about what happened to you during the birth. You may be afraid to ask for help. If you are distressed, it’s important that you reach out for support. Your primary care provider or healthcare professionals can put you in touch with support services to help you process what happened during your baby’s birth. See Baby Blues, PPD, PPA, PPOCD and Postpartum PTSD for more information.

A traumatic birth may cause difficulties in your relationship with your baby. You may feel detached or distant. Your baby may trigger feelings of avoidance because she is a reminder of your traumatic birth. Feelings of detachment and avoidance are normal after a traumatic event. You do not need to feel ashamed. Although it may be difficult, it can be helpful to reach out for support from friends, family, a therapist, support group or healthcare provider.

You do not need to prove to anyone why you are upset about your birth experience. Different people have different reactions to similar experiences. What matters is how you feel. It may take time for you to process your feelings. That’s okay. Time and good support can make a big difference in how you resolve these negative birth feelings. In the end your birth story is your own. It may not be the story you wanted, but it is your story. It is the story of how you became a mother or parent. In time you may be able to learn something from it, even the negative parts.

Breastfeeding after a Difficult Birth
Perhaps you feel that what happened during your baby’s birth has had a negative impact on your breastfeeding journey. This is certainly possible. After a difficult birth some mothers struggle with feelings of failure. If there are difficulties with breastfeeding, these feelings of failure can be made worse. A traumatic birth can increase nursing challenges and make it less likely to work out. This doesn’t always happen, but it is a possibility. When breastfeeding doesn’t go as planned, it can increase your trauma. However, even if you have a difficult start with nursing, you and your baby can still establish a breastfeeding relationship. Good information and support will help you meet your nursing goals.

There are many ways a difficult birth can have a negative impact on breastfeeding. It can have physical and hormonal effects that make breastfeeding more difficult. For example, postpartum hemorrhage or retained placenta can lead to low milk supply challenges. It can also lead parents to suffer from a lack of confidence. However, many breastfeeding difficulties can be overcome with good support. That is why it is very important to seek help with breastfeeding as soon as possible after a traumatic birth. Keep in mind that breastfeeding is a skill. It is not always easy to learn a new skill after a life altering event. Even if nursing seems to be going well, it’s a good idea to seek support. Receiving reassurance can boost your confidence.

Strategies to try if breastfeeding is not working

  • If breastfeeding did not work out initially, it can still be possible to resume breastfeeding at a later date. This is called “relactation”. You can contact an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) or La Leche League Leader for more information on this.
  • What happens in birth can disrupt the natural flow of hormones, such as prolactin, needed to help establish breastfeeding. Consult a healthcare professional knowledgeable about breastfeeding and lactation hormones to help your body make milk.
  • Birth trauma may result in a lengthy separation from your baby. This can be because of health issues with you or your baby. (Such as an NICU stay for your baby.) It is important that you seek support in how to maintain a milk supply when separated from your baby. See pumping information.

The reality is that sometimes what happened to you during birth is so overwhelming or unsurmountable that breastfeeding is impossible. Perhaps your breastfeeding experience looks different than you thought it would because of a difficult birth. For example, maybe pumping is what is working for you even though that is not what you originally planned. It is important not to blame yourself or feel guilty. Grieve the loss of the breastfeeding experience you wanted. Know that there are many ways you can bond with your baby, such as baby wearing or skin-to-skin care. Seek a trusted support person you can share your feelings with.

On the other hand, breastfeeding after birth trauma can be a source of healing. Many parents feel an increased resolve to breastfeed after a difficult birth. They are very determined to meet their breastfeeding goals. Birth trauma can make parents feel as if their body failed. But when breastfeeding goes well, they can feel a renewed source of confidence in their body and parenting abilities. Breastfeeding also provides an opportunity to feel bonded and attached to your baby after a difficult birth.

Here are some strategies to help you understand how you are feeling:

  • Find someone to talk to: a friend, a therapist, a La Leche League Leader. It’s helpful to share your experience with people who will acknowledge your feelings and not judge them.
  • Keep a journal. Write down the story of your baby’s birth and how you are feeling about it. Research has shown that this is a very helpful strategy for dealing with trauma.
  • Write a letter/email to your healthcare provider, hospital or birth centre. Contact the Patient Advocate. Share the birth experience you had. Offer suggestions on how it could have been better. Simply writing the letter can be helpful, even if you don’t send it.
  • Read about healing from a difficult birth experience.
  • Go to a La Leche League meeting where you can talk with other mothers and share your experience.

If your birth experience is making it difficult to bond with your baby, it can be helpful to:

  • spend as much time as possible with your baby, even if you have conflicted feelings. Being together helps build a relationship with your baby. Your bodies become familiar to each other. Your bond will grow with time. Bit by bit, you’ll find more you adore about him.
  • hold your baby skin to skin as much as possible. Smell her and feel her skin. See Skin-to-Skin Care.
  • take a warm bath together. Stroke and massage your baby as you enjoy the soothing water. Nuzzle him and kiss him. Let him nurse while you soak.
  • make decisions about your baby—what she’ll wear, how to hold her, how to comfort her. Taking responsibility for your baby helps you feel more nurturing toward her.
  • be patient if your baby won’t latch. Understand that it’s just temporary. Most babies will get there in time. If your baby is having difficulty latching, or breastfeeding is painful, see Positioning and Latching, for more information. Get help from an IBCLC or La Leche League Leader.

Birth trauma can be distressing. With support from family, friends, healthcare professionals and La Leche League, you can move forward from this experience. Many mothers and parents have successful breastfeeding relationships after difficult birth experiences.

Resources for Parents
Beck, C. T., Driscoll, J. W., & Watson, S. (2013). Traumatic childbirth. Routledge.

Brown, A. (2019). Why breastfeeding grief and trauma matter. Pinter & Martin Limited.

Bruijn, M., & Gould, D. (2017). How to Heal a Bad Birth: Making Sense, Making Peace and Moving On.

Svanberg, E. (2019). Why Birth Trauma Matters (Vol. 15). Pinter & Martin Ltd.

Beck, C. T. (2004). Birth trauma: in the eye of the beholder. Nursing research, 53(1), 28-35.

Beck, C. T., & Watson, S. (2008). Impact of birth trauma on breast-feeding: a tale of two pathways. Nursing research, 57(4), 228-236.

Davis, A. M., & Sclafani, V. (2022). Birth experiences, breastfeeding, and the mother-child relationship: evidence from a large sample of mothers. Canadian Journal of Nursing Research, 08445621221089475.

Ketley, R., Darwin, Z., Masterson, C., & McGowan, L. (2022). Women’s experience of post-traumatic growth following a traumatic birth: an interpretive phenomenological analysis. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 1-12.