Birth trauma: more common than previously thought

I’m sometimes reluctant to talk to people about my book and this blog, on the basis that most people will regard it as rather niche and therefore not very interesting. But the opposite has proved true: almost every woman I’ve discussed it with turns out to have either experienced some degree of birth trauma or knows another woman who has.

So I’m not surprised by the finding of a new Israeli study that far more mothers experience psychological stress after giving birth than previously thought.

The University of Haifa study of 188 first-time mothers found that 45% underwent a “moderate to severe psychological crisis.”

The researcher, Yeela Tomsis, also looked at PTSD. While only 1.1% of the women studied met all the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis, about 5% had symptoms from two of the categories for PTSD, and another 22% had symptoms from one category. In other words, more than a quarter of first-time mothers suffer some PTSD symptoms.

(The four categories for a full PTSD diagnosis are: re-experiencing the trauma through things like flashbacks; avoidance of reminders of the trauma; negative mood, such as guilt; and arousal, often characterised by jumpiness and a heightened sense of anxiety.)

Risk factors for PTSD, the study found, included feelings of distress during labour, a sense of loss of resources and a tendency to cope through self-blame and rumination on the event.

When I’ve talked to health professionals about birth trauma, I’ve found that they are often unaware of the extreme distress women can suffer as the result of a bad birth experience. Yet giving birth isn’t a trivial event. Even when it goes well, it’s a physically and emotionally intense experience; when it goes badly, it can be extremely painful and frightening.

Combine that with the alienation of giving birth in an impersonal hospital environment and the indifferent attitude of some health professionals, and we shouldn’t be at all surprised that women become traumatised as a result.

We need more studies like this one by Dr Tomsis: perhaps when the scale of the problem becomes apparent, the medical profession will think about how it can safeguard women’s mental wellbeing as well as their physical health.

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