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.

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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.

Breaking the silence – why we need birth trauma awareness week

Next week – August 14 to 18 – is birth trauma awareness week. It has two main aims. One is to make more people aware of what birth trauma is and how it affects women (and their families) who experience it.

The other aim is to raise money so that the Birth Trauma Association can start extending its services to women by offering peer support by phone and face-to-face.

If you’re interested in helping, there are a few things you can do:

  • Tweet links to women’s birth stories using the hashtag #BreakTheSilence
  • Hold a fundraising event – you can download a fundraising pack for ideas
  • Follow the Birth Trauma Association on Twitter
  • Change your social media profile pic to include the Birth Trauma Association logo
  • Register with Thunderclap to post a message about birth trauma awareness on your timeline at 5pm on Monday 14th – the more people who register, the more impact the message will have

It’s long been clear that there’s a huge unmet need for support services for women suffering from birth trauma. Although it’s hard to know the exact number, the current best guess is that 20,000 women every year suffer from postnatal PTSD in the UK (3% of the total number of women giving birth).

One of the reasons the condition is little known about is because women don’t speak about it. And the reason they don’t speak about it is that people don’t listen. Women are used to hearing the dismissive phrase: “All that matters is that you have a healthy baby.”

Two weeks ago, a blogger who writes under the name of Mummy Truths wrote a post called: I had a shit birth. Here’s six reasons why I really want others to know.

It’s a wonderful, eloquent, powerful piece about what it’s like to experience birth trauma. Within a matter of days, it had received 90,000 hits, having been shared on Facebook parenting groups, midwife groups and birth groups. Sarah brilliantly describes how women with birth trauma are silenced, about how dignity and respect are neglected in birth and how it feels to experience the constant hypervigiliance of PTSD: “The triggers are many and they are everywhere. A letter for a smear test, a shadow flickering past the window when you’re alone in the house at night. Shouting. The baby crying. It can all trigger symptoms – feelings of fear and threat – reducing a mother’s ability to parent well.”

The reason the post was shared so often was because it resonated with so many women. They read it, thinking, Yes, that’s how I felt. That’s what it was like for me.

If you want to know why birth trauma is important, then read Mummy Truths’s post. It’s time women’s stories were heard. It’s time to #BreakTheSilence.

When childbirth goes badly wrong: one woman’s account

Nilufer Atik has written a striking account of her experience of PTSD after childbirth. Atik was in labour for 53 hours, after which she was given an emergency caesarean.

But it shouldn’t have happened like that. Atik’s labour started with contractions that were “sharp and hard, beginning four minutes apart and lasting between 50 to 90 seconds each time.” The hospital – St George’s in Tooting – told her not to come in because she wasn’t in active labour. She stayed at home in increasing pain for 19 hours until eventually she could stand it no longer. At hospital:

“I was taken to a pre-delivery bay and more torturous hours passed with the contractions increasing in intensity and frequency. I cried out for pain relief and was given the powerful painkiller pethidine four times (most women are only allowed two injections) but it did little to help. With no sleep, food or water, and feeling so exhausted I could barely speak, I became fearful that, if the baby did come, I wouldn’t have the energy to push him out.”

She was eventually given an epidural, followed by a caesarean section when the baby appeared in distress. But the most remarkable part of her story is this:

“Poor Milo was in a bad birthing position with his back against mine and his head hyperextended. It meant not only that my labour was much more painful than it should have been, but I would never have been able to deliver him vaginally. His head was blocking my cervix from dilating, which was why I was having contractions for so long with no progress.”

The time that Atik spent in labour was wasted – physiologically, she wasn’t able to give birth. Why staff at St George’s didn’t realise this is an interesting question, but it may have been to do with the fact that when Atik arrived at the hospital in labour, the maternity ward was extremely busy.

Two weeks ago an NCT survey found that, in the Guardian’s words, “A chronic shortage of midwives across the UK means women in labour are left feeling unsafe and frightened or as if they are being treated ‘like cattle’ or ‘on a conveyor belt’.” It’s not just lack of midwives, it’s a lack of space: one woman even described giving birth on the antenatal ward, because there was no room on the delivery ward.

It’s been said so often that NHS services are at breaking point that perhaps nobody takes it seriously any more. But cases like Atik’s show that the seriousness and the urgency of the problem. When midwives are overworked, the quality of care for women is never going to be good enough. Women will suffer unnecessarily, as Atik did, and may as a result experience physical trauma or psychological trauma that will need treatment later on. Sometimes, babies will die.

 

 

Piers Morgan is wrong

I know the words “Piers Morgan is wrong” are about as remarkable as “The sky is blue” or “Winter is cold” but this time he’s excelled himself.

In brief, Lady Gaga told an interviewer that she suffered PTSD as the result of being raped when she was 19. Morgan managed a double dose of wrongness, first by casting doubt on whether she’d been raped, and then by stating that PTSD was something suffered by “soldiers returning from battlefields” (and by implication, not by people who have experienced other forms of trauma).

We should all of us, even talentless self-publicists, be aware by now that victims of sexual assault don’t tend to report it – largely because they fear not being believed. In that, they are right. Of the hundreds of children and women assaulted by Jimmy Savile, most kept the attack private. The few who did report it found themselves either ignored or accused of lying. If their reports had been taken seriously, Savile would have ended up in prison years ago, and many of his victims would have been spared. The fact that Morgan refuses to believe Lady Gaga now pretty much proves the point.

And if he knows anything at all about PTSD, he should know that soldiers are only one of the groups who suffer from it. Victims of sexual assault, people who have been in a car crash, people who have been attacked by a partner or a stranger, refugees fleeing terror, paramedics who have witnessed a violent death and, of course, women who have been through a traumatic birth can and do suffer from PTSD.

So which are the biggest groups of sufferers? Not soldiers. Rape Crisis reports that 97,000 people in England and Wales (85,000 women and 12,000 men) are raped each year. We know that about 50% of rape victims experience PTSD – that translates into nearly 50,000 people a year, so they may well represent the biggest group. But then there are also victims of domestic violence, asylum seekers and children being sexually abused. A rough estimate suggests that 2% of women giving birth experience postnatal PTSD, equivalent to about 20,000 people a year in England and Wales.

Whichever way you look at it, that’s a lot of PTSD sufferers. A huge number of people experiencing a major mental health problem that is under-diagnosed and under-treated. And what they don’t need, what they really don’t need, is an irresponsible idiot with a high media profile telling them that they’re lying about their experience and lying about their illness.

Severe tearing in childbirth – not just a physical problem

NB I’ve edited this post to clarify that Liz Skinner’s research focuses primarily on women with damage to the levator ani muscle rather than with obstetric tearing.

A traumatic vaginal birth in which the levator ani and external anal sphincter muscles are damaged can cause mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a new study from Liz Skinner. About half the women also had severe tearing.

About 90% of women experience tearing during childbirth, but most are first or second degree tears, which are relatively mild and heal quickly. Approximately six percent of women have third or fourth degree tears that can damage the anal sphincter. Skinner and Hans Peter Dietz have also pioneered research into damage to the levator ani muscle (LAM), which can be devastating for women. The argue that the problems of a difficult vaginal birth tend to be overlooked in the drive to reduce caesarean sections, which are usually perceived as more risky for both mother and baby.

The study identified 40 first-time mothers with major pelvic floor trauma and interviewed them one-to-four years after they gave birth. Just over half (22) of the women had “major obstetric anal sphincter tears.”

Of the 40 women, 35 had “Multiple symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction” causing lifestyle alteration. These symptoms included “urinary or fecal incontinence, prolapse, chronic pain, dyspareunia [painful intercourse]”.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that 27 experienced PTSD symptoms, including “poor baby bonding, flashbacks during sex, dissociation, avoidance, anxiety”.

Probably the most worrying themes to emerge from the study were the lack of awareness or communication from health professionals:

  • 36 women said there was no information provided by clinicians on potential postnatal pelvic floor morbidities
  • 36 said that there was no postnatal assessment of their injuries
  • 26 said that they experienced “dismissive reactions from poorly informed clinicians to maternal injuries. One woman said: “The midwife said that this was OK… but I knew that it was not normal… The doctors really did not understand the situation… I was in shock – devastated and unable to get any health professional to understand.”

Although the study was carried out in Australia, I’d be surprised if a UK study didn’t find something similar. I’ve now heard numerous stories about obstetric tears not being treated properly or women having their concerns dismissed as unimportant. One of the problems is that midwives often don’t see the consequences of tearing in childbirth – women are only under midwife care for 10 days after birth, so if a tear has failed to heal properly weeks, months or even, shockingly, years after birth, they’ll be dealt with by another group of health professionals entirely. So midwives may well assume, wrongly, that a tear during childbirth has healed without problems.  That may lead to an unjustified confidence that obstetric tearing isn’t a significant problem. And because LAM damage is impossible to detect without ultrasound, LAM problems are generally undiagnosed and therefore untreated.

As I’ve already reported, the RCOG is now campaigning for better understanding of obstetric tearing in childbirth, and better care for the women who experience it. But we still have a long way to go – and In the meantime, a lot of women are suffering in silence.

At last: the NHS acts on maternal mental health

Good news: in the next five years, NHS England will create 20 new specialist treatment centres for women who suffer from mental health problems during pregnancy or after birth.

This has been a long time coming. For years the government has promised to address the poor quality of mental health care for new mothers, and finally it’s putting its money where its mouth is. Admittedly it’s not very much money – the centres will be funded to the tune of £40m, which is unlikely to cope with the scale of the problem: an estimated one in five new mothers (about 120,000 women a year) experience mental health problems.

The majority of these women suffer from postnatal depression, but a substantial minority will have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The most conservative estimate for PTSD after childbirth is 1.5% (about 10,000 women a year in England and Wales), but researchers now think that the true figure is probably double that. PTSD can’t be cured with a pill: treatment, usually trauma-focused CBT or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) takes several weeks, and is expensive.

Having spoken to many women suffering from postnatal PTSD, I know that it can be hard to find specialist help. It’s not unusual for women to have to wait months for treatment, during which time they suffer the stress of flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety and terror. They are often frightened to leave the house and avoid contact with other new babies, making them isolated on top of everything else. All of these things have an impact on their relationship with their baby and with their partner. It’s not surprising that ­– according to the Guardian report of the NHS’s plans – perinatal mental health problems cost the UK £8.1bn a year.

So while I welcome the new centres as a step in the right direction, much more needs to be done to make sure that women with PTSD and other mental health problems receive the support they require. Even more importantly, I would love the NHS work towards preventing these mental health problems from arising in the first place. Most women with postnatal PTSD believe that it was caused, not solely by a traumatic birth, but by the feelings of helplessness and lack of control during the experience, and by the casual and sometimes even cruel attitude of healthcare professionals looking after them.

Some of this can be addressed by better recruitment and better staff training. But the NHS also needs to adopt rigorous standards of care that hold health professionals accountable: making sure that procedures aren’t carried out on women without their consent, for example, or that women are denied necessary pain relief. In a 21st century health service, in a wealthy democracy these things shouldn’t be difficult, but the stories I hear from traumatised women about poor care show we still have a very long way to go.