The impact of birth trauma

Have you experienced a difficult birth?

Does it trouble you to think about it?

You aren’t alone.

We are led to believe that giving birth is meant to be a magical moment. But sometimes it doesn’t go as planned. For some women, it can be a frightening and distressing experience.

Up to 1 in 3 women report they experienced their birth as traumatic.

There are many reasons why you may have experienced your birth as traumatic. This may be due to a lack of control, severe physical pain, inadequate communication from your maternity provider, or fear for your own or your baby’s life.

While many women experience physical injuries from their birth, psychological trauma is less often talked about. A traumatic birth experience can lead to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In a recent study conducted by the Australian Birth Trauma Association (ABTA), they surveyed 1005 birthing parents across Australia and found 79% of birthing parents reported experiencing at least one symptom of PTSD. Vivid flashbacks or nightmares were experienced by 19% of birthing parents. Sadly, almost half of the birthing parents in the study did not seek any treatment to manage their symptoms.

Signs of birth trauma and PTSD may be misdiagnosed as postpartum depression, or it can be missed altogether because standardised postpartum screening tools do not capture trauma and anxiety symptoms.

What is birth-related PTSD? 

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop after a birth-related trauma experience. Trauma is a personal experience and only you will know if your birth was traumatic. Fathers and non-birthing partners can also experience PTSD related to the birth.

How do you know if you have PTSD? 

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder may be present if you experience trauma-related symptoms connected to your birth, or in the pregnancy or early postpartum period (for example, if you needed to be readmitted to a hospital).

Consider whether you have experienced any of the following:

  • You believed that you or your baby would be seriously injured or would die
  • Recurrent unwanted memories of the birth
  • Bad dreams or nightmares related to birth
  • Flashbacks to the birthing experience (feeling as if you are back in time)
  • Feeling tense, upset or anxious when reminded of the birth
  • Try to avoid thinking about the birth or avoiding things such as people, places and television shows that may remind you of the birth
  • Unable to remember key details of the birth
  • Self-blame for what happened during the birth
  • Strong negative feelings about the birth such as fear, anger or shame


If you experienced any of the above in the weeks or months following the birth you may be experiencing symptoms of PTSD. Following the birth you may also experience a worsening of these symptoms:

  • Feeling negative about yourself
  • Increased anxiety about something bad happening
  • Loss of interest in things you usually enjoy
  • Feeling detached from self or others
  • Irritability, tension and on edge
  • Feeling jumpy or easily startled
  • Sleep difficulties (unrelated to baby)
  • Feeling detached or as if you are in a dream

If it has been more than one month since the birth then you could be experiencing birth-related PTSD. If it has been less than this time, then you may have trauma symptoms known as Acute Stress Disorder. Both conditions require mental health intervention.

Impact of birth trauma

Apart from the physical trauma and recovery, the psychological impact of birth trauma can make adjusting to parenthood challenging. You may also experience low mood, anxiety, difficulties bonding with your baby or feeling disconnected from your loved ones, family and friends. Some women develop negative thoughts and feelings about their bodies and themselves.

Birth trauma can also disrupt physical intimacy with your partner and plans for future pregnancies.

Where to seek help

Fortunately, there is help available for birth-related trauma and PTSD. You do not need to suffer alone. Many women find that talking and debriefing about their birth with a health professional helpful.

Talk to your GP, midwife, or child and family nurse about how you’ve been feeling and obtain a referral to a mental health professional who has experience treating birth trauma. There are a range of evidence-based therapies that target birth-related PTSD as well as help you with any other difficulties you may have adjusting to parenthood.

The Australian Birth Trauma Association (ABTA) is also a useful resource on this topic.


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