Content Warning: This article could trigger those who are pregnant or who have experienced birth trauma in the past.
Delivering a child into this world is a profound, transformative experience. But for some, the birthing process can cause physical and emotional trauma—or sometimes even death. Birth trauma refers to psychological or physical distress in labor and delivery.
Even with new advances in medical science and technology, birthers are still at risk for exponential amounts of trauma, often as a result of not feeling heard by the same medical professionals assigned to care for their health and safety.
July 16–22 is Birth Trauma Awareness Week, which helps bring attention to the fact that many birthers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With increased levels of awareness, new parents can share their birth trauma experiences and feel less alone, while medical professionals can become more informed to grow in their field.
My Personal Birth Trauma Experience
While I am not a medical professional, I do have personal experience as a mother who has undergone childbirth twice. Both of my labors lasted more than 20 hours. During my first birth, I encountered significant discomfort, which my nurse chose to ignore, despite the many times I communicated this pain to her.
She continuously minimized my concerns until it became evident there was an issue with my epidural catheter. Fortunately, it was a problem that could be easily rectified. However, I no longer trusted her after this incident, which left me anxious about postpartum neglect from my healthcare providers. My thoughts spiraled, as I felt the serene birthing experience I had initially envisioned shrink from view.
For my second birthing experience, I intentionally sought out a different medical system to ensure I would not encounter the same nurse. Upon my arrival, I told staff about this negative experience and my fear of repeating it. They expressed sincere concern over the treatment I had suffered before, then went above and beyond to create a much better experience for me this time around.
Even in postpartum, when unforeseen complications arose, they remained attentive and well-informed of my condition, all the while prioritizing my health, comfort, and safety. I experienced a stage-I hemorrhage, but my doctor was able to perform a successful (albiet painfully traumatic procedure) to control the bleeding. This experience was distressing and emotionally impactful. But the unwavering support I received from the medical team only reaffirmed their commitment to my care.
The Dangers and Risks of Birth Trauma
Both of my stories had positive outcomes, with my own health and my children’s well-being intact. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that not all birthers are as fortunate. Many continue to suffer from PTSD or anxiety in the aftermath of traumatic childbirth experiences. These lasting effects underscore the importance of awareness and interventions to lower the risk of birth trauma and its long-term consequences. While this is just my own experience, here are some other ways that birth trauma can manifest:
- Deviation from your birth plan
- Birth-related injuries (to you or the newborn)
- Assisted delivery with the use of forceps
- Emergency cesarian section birth
- Stillbirth or neonatal death
- Post-birth infant emergency medical care
Birth Trauma Disparities Facing Black Parents
It is also vital to emphasize the tragic disparities that Black birthers face in this current healthcare system, as well as the stories of birthers like that of Olympic athlete Tori Bowie. Drawing attention to these disparities can help reinforce the need for preventive solutions, so we can work to lower the incidence of birth trauma.
The fact remains that systemic racial disparities exist in the birthing process. Black birthers, in particular, face a more serious risk of birth trauma overall. Studies consistently show that Black birthers suffer higher rates of maternal mortality, pre-term birth, or other harmful complications than their white birthing counterparts.
According to the CDC, “In 2021, 1,205 women died of maternal causes in the United States compared with 861 in 2020 and 754 in 2019. The maternal mortality rate for 2021 was 32.9 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared with a rate of 23.8 in 2020 and 20.1 in 2019.” Factors such as systemic racism, implicit biases, and socioeconomic inequities all contribute to this alarming trend. Therefore, it is imperative that we work as a society to ensure equitable and accessible care for all birthers—regardless of their race or ethnicity.
5 Ways to Prevent the Occurrence of Birth Trauma
Improve Cultural Sensitivity and Competence.
Healthcare professionals should receive training to combat racial disparities or implicit biases, while increasing cultural competence. A deeper understanding of the nuanced experiences and unique needs of Black birthers will enable providers to offer more personalized, empathetic care, reducing the risk of trauma.
Make Access to Prenatal Care More Equitable.
Prenatal care must be accessible to everyone in order to minimize the occurrence of birth trauma. This includes offering comprehensive services, early screenings, and educational resources to empower birthers to make informed decisions for their health and well-being. Expanding community-based prenatal programs and creating more transportation options can also lower barriers of entry in marginalized communities.
Implement Anti-Racist Practices in Healthcare.
Healthcare institutions must actively work to dismantle systemic racism within their own organizations. This includes evaluating policies, procedures, and protocols to eliminate racial biases. Establishing more diverse, inclusive healthcare teams can also contribute to a safer, culturally sensitive environment for birthers.
Promote Birth Advocacy and Support Networks.
Empowering birthers with education and advocacy can help them navigate the entire process with confidence. It’s important to encourage the formation of various networks, such as doula services and peer groups in order to alleviate stress, nurture support, and allow for positive birth experiences.
Prioritize Trauma-Informed Care for All Birthers.
Trauma-informed care at all milestones in the birthing process can make a significant difference. Medical professionals should foster safe, supportive healthcare environments that prioritize informed consent, communication, and respect. It’s crucial to recognize the affect of previous traumas on birthers’ experiences and offer helpful resources or interventions to lower the risk of further birth trauma moving forward.
Birth Trauma: The Bottom Line
Birth trauma is a complex issue that requires multifaceted solutions. By confronting the disparities that Black birthers face, raising awareness around stories like Tori Bowie’s, and creating preventive measures, we can make progress to reduce birth trauma and nurture a more equitable birthing experience for everyone. It is our collective responsibility to advocate for change, overcome systemic inequities, and ensure that all birthers receive the healing care they deserve in this transformative stage of their lives.
Peaches Dean is a parenting coach and writer/author. She uses her decade of experience in working with children and families to fuel her passion for writing. Her goal is to empower women in their life’s journey, especially as it pertains to parenting.
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