“I didn’t see, hear or feel the birth of my child”

The Vancouver Sun recounts the experience of Kalina Christoff, who had a traumatic birth that led to her suffering from PTSD.

Christoff’s experience will be immediately recognisable to any woman who has experienced birth trauma. The paper says she was “distressed, frightened and overwhelmed at the way she was treated by medical personnel, but worse, she felt powerless to stop the juggernaut of medical procedures that doctors seemed determined to perform.”

Doctors told Christoff there was a problem with the baby’s heartbeat (without telling her what that problem was) and insisted on a forceps delivery. Christoff didn’t know what was happening, and she and the baby both sustained physical injuries, though the psychological injuries were longer-lasting. Of the birth itself, she says: “I didn’t see, hear or feel the birth of my child. No one told me he was born, and no one showed him to me.”

The feeling of helplessness – a sense that you have no idea what is going on, and are powerless to stop it – is a common feature of PTSD, regardless of whether it is the result of trauma experienced in combat or a violent assault.

The additional anguish Christoff describes at not seeing her baby is a specific feature of birth trauma, however. The desire to see and hold one’s baby as soon as it is born is overwhelming for many women, and if the baby is taken away at birth, that sense of loss is relived over and over again. One woman I spoke to for my book was rushed to the operating theatre for a blood transfusion when her baby was born. She told me:

“I felt like I’d missed out on being the first. I didn’t get him dressed – I was wheeled away to theatre, and my husband was handed a naked baby, and when I came back he was dressed and wrapped in a blanket and asleep in a bed, which I was really upset about. I didn’t get to feed him first because he was in special care, and they fed him, so I was upset about that.”

Women who lose out on the opportunity for initial contact sometimes find it hard to bond with their baby. As well as feeling a sense of loss, they often feel guilt, exacerbated perhaps by the proliferation of experts who insist that a child’s life can be ruined by a lack of early maternal bonding.

There was a time when it was routine for babies to be whisked away after birth. Luckily, it is less common now – but health professionals would do well to remember the impact taking a baby away can have on a mother. The platitude “All that matters is you have a healthy baby” is far from the truth for women whose initial sense of loss never goes away.

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