Why birth is traumatic – and how we can make it better

During birth trauma awareness week in August, dozens of women took the opportunity to tell their birth stories.

Psychologist Emma Svanberg collected 75 stories and published them on her site, Make Birth Better. They make for a harrowing read as women recount experiences of being left for hours in pain, being torn apart in childbirth, coping with infections, being ignored by doctors and midwives, suffering from incontinence problems, fearing their baby was about to die, and much more.

As well as publishing the stories, Emma analysed them and picked out five themes. Anyone who has heard women talk about their traumatic birth will find them familiar: A force bigger than me; Heroes and villains; Delivery into parenthood; I had no idea; Make birth better. Together, the five themes give both a powerful account of what is wrong with the way women are treated in birth and a guide to how we can do it better.

Violence and brutality

“A force bigger than me” talks about the overwhelming physicality of birth. This includes things like the unbearable pain, physical damage such as pelvic fracture or bowel problems, but it also includes the sense of violation: “Being stitched up was a violence”, “Everything in my labour felt like a war”, “It was comparable to rape”. Many spoke of actions being taken without consent.

The “Heroes and villains” theme makes for particularly dispiriting reading. Women write of having staff talk over them, of arguing with colleagues, of shouting at them and of ignoring them. It hardly needs saying how distressing this is for women who are giving birth, and already fearful about whether they or their baby will survive. But when a midwife is kind or supportive, that makes an impact too. “I got the most amazing midwife who I remember as my superhero,” one writes.

“Delivery into parenthood” provides a vivid account of the psychological impact of a traumatic birth both on themselves and their partners. They have flashbacks and nightmares; they feel ashamed or like failures. They may feel permanently changed and scarred by what has happened to them. They feel they’ve missed out on the opportunity to form a bond with their baby. For partners, it was the “most brutal thing he has witnessed” or ‘he thought that was going to be the last time he saw us”.

Pull yourself together

The fourth theme, “I had no idea”, recounts women’s feelings of shock at the experience of birth, which they were often ill-prepared for, compounded by a lack of communication from health professionals who didn’t tell them what was happening. Another topic that comes up is what is often these days referred to as “gaslighting”: a deliberate minimising by health professionals of the trauma the woman has gone through: “Dr telling me there was no need to cry”, “she told me to stop wasting time”, “stop making a fuss”, “pull myself together”. In many cases women felt they had nowhere to turn for help.

Finally, in “Make Birth Better”, women talk about what they think women should know before giving birth, and what health professionals and providers should know. They talked about the need to be better informed, without scaremongering, about what birth could be like. They talked about the need for health professionals to keep them informed about what was happening, and to think about the language they used. And they talked about the need for better support after a traumatic birth rather than leaving them to fend for themselves.

I felt a weary sense of familiarity in reading women’s accounts of what happened to them. In the UK, 700,000 women give birth every year. Birth is an unpredictable business, and emergencies can happen very suddenly. It’s understandable that sometimes health professionals have to act quickly without much time to talk. And yet is it really necessary to treat women as if they’re idiots? To argue with colleagues in front of a labouring woman? To perform invasive procedures without asking their consent? To abandon a woman who has been distressed by a traumatic birth and tell her she simply has to get on with things? Calm, informative communication doesn’t require an investment in resources, simply a willingness to treat women in labour as autonomous adults, deserving of normal amounts of respect and kindness.

Until we put women and their needs at the forefront of maternity care, however, then stories like this will keep on coming.

Advertisements

If we really want to help women with birth trauma, we need to learn to listen

One of the things that practically everyone involved with mental health seems to agree on is that we need to talk more. People bottle their problems up, which makes everything worse, and sometimes leads to depression and suicide. If only we talked more about our feelings, everything would be much better.

This truism is trotted out time and time again. It’s rare, however, for someone to make the simple point that talking is only of any value if someone is listening. Yet that, in my experience, is where the real problem lies.

“Listening” doesn’t, of course, just mean listening. Real listening is hard work: it means paying attention to what the other person is saying, trying to understand their point of view, not telling them about your similar experience or suggesting they cheer up or offering advice about what they should do.

Women who have experienced postnatal PTSD come up against this problem all the time. A characteristic of PTSD is the urge to talk about the traumatic experience continually, to try to make sense of it. This isn’t surprising, as PTSD sufferers often find themselves reliving the trauma: it doesn’t feel like something that happened in the past, but that is always present.

Yet when they talk to their partners, their family or even to health professionals, they come up against the same response over and over again:

“You’ve got a healthy baby – focus on that instead.”

“The health professionals were only doing their best for you.”

“Other women have had babies and don’t make this amount of fuss.”

“It’s time to move on and put it all behind you.”

None of this is helpful, because it minimises the experience and also makes the woman feel as if she’s being unreasonable. It’s also useless, because PTSD is not something anyone has control over – no-one chooses to experience flashbacks, or to be constantly anxious, or to feel terror every time they walk past the place they experienced the trauma (usually a hospital, for women with postnatal PTSD). PTSD causes real, physical changes in the brain – they don’t disappear by force of will.

The reason why the blogpost “I had a shit birth. Here’s six reasons why I really want others to know” went viral is that the writer accurately captured this need to have people actually stop and listen, without judgement. As the blog’s author says: “Silencing anyone who has lived through trauma is not okay.”

Her follow-up post, How to avoid birth trauma, by expert commenters of the interweb, after her story was featured in national news sites, nicely captures that failure to listen, from people on the internet who have never experienced trauma and have no clinical or academic expertise in the subject, but nonetheless have a view on how other people should deal with it.

One last thing. During Awareness Week, the Birth Trauma Association was inundated by emails from women desperate to tell their story. Reading those stories shows that the listening problem starts well before the trauma: story after story relates how women told medical professionals there was something wrong, or that they were in severe pain or distress, only to be told that everything was normal. There are even stories of women who knew they were ready to push being told that they weren’t ready to push. In one extraordinary account, a woman describes how, post-birth, her extreme pain was dismissed by doctors and midwives alike, until a healthcare assistant spotted her racing heart – the first sign of septic shock – and called for help, thus saving her life. Even allowing for understaffing, this seems negligent.

Yes, it’s good to talk. But it’s even better to listen.

Too many babies are dying at birth

Last week saw the publication of two reports on the deaths of newborn babies. Each Baby Counts, published by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), found that three-quarters of the babies who die or are brain damaged during childbirth in the UK might have been saved by better medical care.

The MBRRACE report found that between 2013 and 2015, the stillbirth rate fell from 4.2 to 3.87 per 1,000 births. That’s good news, though the report noted that the stillbirth rate is still higher than many similar European countries and that there is “significant variation” across the UK – variation that can’t be explained simply by factors such as poverty or maternal age. In other words, the difference is likely to be the result of different practices in different hospitals.

Each Baby Counts investigated the cases of 1136 cases of babies born in the UK in 2015 who either suffered brain damage during birth, or died during delivery or in the next week. Of those, the report estimates that 550 babies could have been saved. Shockingly, in 409 cases, the Each Baby Counts team wasn’t able to determine whether the babies could have been saved because the information provided wasn’t good enough.

And that’s the real scandal. The best way to improve medical care and prevent unnecessary deaths is through the collection and analysis of evidence so that we can determine best practice that can then be followed by every hospital in the country.

Childbirth is a complicated business because it can involve countless small decisions that women have to make in conjunction with their caregivers. Each one of those decisions has the potential to increase or decrease the risk of harm to the mother and baby. Decisions are rarely easy to make because every intervention (induction, foetal monitoring, epidural, episiotomy, forceps…) can increase some risks while decreasing others. This is why evidence is so important.

Doctors don’t always know best

Ben Goldacre illustrates the importance of evidence through the example of head injuries. In a blogpost, he writes:

“For many years, it was common to treat everyone who had a serious head injury with steroids. This made perfect sense on paper: head injuries cause the brain to swell up, which can cause important structures to be crushed inside our rigid skulls; but steroids reduce swelling (this is why you have steroid injections for a swollen knee), so they should improve survival. Nobody ran a trial on this for many years. In fact, it was widely argued that randomising unconscious patients in A&E to have steroids or not would be unethical and unfair, so trials were actively blocked. When a trial was finally conducted, it turned out that steroids actually increased the chances of dying, after a head injury.”

It may be that some midwives and obstetricians have instinctive beliefs about reducing the harm to mother and baby that turn out to be completely wrong. It’s hard to know until we collect the evidence. Yet we do know that some trusts, such as Southmead Hospital in Bristol, and Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals, have adopted good practice that has led to the reduction of birth injuries in the first case, and of errors relating to the CTG trace in the second (errors caused by misreading the CTG trace are a common cause of injury and death in newborn babies).

Other countries manage to have far fewer babies die at birth than we do. It’s not an impossible dream. But if we are serious about saving the lives of newborn babies, then we have to start with the absolute basics: collecting the data to find out why they are dying.

It’s time we talked about perineal trauma

Today’s Victoria Derbyshire programme had an excellent film about perineal injuries during childbirth. You can read the associated article and see the film here (it’s about 15 minutes long). Four women shared their experience of having third or fourth degree tears during childbirth, resulting for some of them in urinary or bowel incontinence.

One of the striking facts in the film was that between 2000 and 2012, the rate of severe tearing during vaginal delivery increased from 2% to 6%. Although the programme was careful to state that this was “very rare”, in practice this translates into about 30,000 women a year. This huge increase in the rate, an obstetrician told the programme, was down to three main factors: the older age at which women have their first baby; an increase in the size of babies being born; and women themselves being bigger and heavier. But this isn’t necessarily the full explanation: the increase may simply be down to better recognition of tears as a result of the implementation of standard classification.

The programme also read out text messages from viewers. What was sad was the clear variability in treatment available. Although some women said their injuries had healed, others said they had been fobbed off when they complained about their perineal injuries, or that the injuries had persisted over months and years. One of those interviewed on the programme was effectively told that it was all in her head.

The good news is that the professionals are now taking this seriously: the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) have developed an intervention package to reduce tearing in childbirth. The package is really just a simple change to the recommended way in which midwives deliver the baby, which has been shown to reduce tearing. It is being piloted in a number of hospitals and will eventually be rolled out throughout England.

Nonetheless, it’s shocking that in this day and age that a problem affecting so many women isn’t talked about or even taken particularly seriously. It was clear from the programme that many doctors aren’t adequately trained to deal with perineal tears. That – as well as better care during delivery – needs to change.

Traumatic births: women tell their stories

It can be hard for women to speak out about their traumatic birth experiences. There’s a widespread perception that all that matters is a healthy baby, and that women should be grateful for a modern system of medical care that means they are unlikely to die in childbirth.

Of course, it’s great that most of us don’t die in childbirth any more. But not dying is setting the bar pretty low for our expectations for medical care. If we go into hospital for surgery, for example, we do usually expect a bit more from the care we receive than simply “not dying”.

So I welcome it when women are prepared to talk about what happened to them in childbirth and to highlight some of the poor practice that still exists. A new photo series called Exposing the Silence gives a voice to women who have experienced shockingly bad care.

The women in the photos speak of having procedures such as episiotomies or membrane sweeps performed without their consent or of being able to feel themselves being cut during caesarean-sections. A lot of the women speak of the trauma they felt after having their preferences ignored or dismissed.

These stories come from the US, but I’ve heard similar experiences in the UK. The story recounted by one of the women is not, sadly, uncommon:

“‘Do you understand you are doing this without my consent?’ As they are putting needles into my arm, I’m telling them, ‘You are doing this against my will.’ Their response, even as my strong contractions grew faster and I was in active labor, was, ‘I can’t wait all night, and we are doing this now.’ Less than an hour later, he was born, taken from me before I could hold him longer than a minute or two, and not returned until almost three hours later, even though he had no complications. I cried every minute and couldn’t stop thinking, this isn’t supposed to be like this.”