I recently went to the cinema with a midwife friend of mine to see Birth Time: The Documentary (by Selina Scoble, Jerusha Sutton, Jo Hunter and Zoe Naylor). Staggeringly, “One third of women leave their birth experience describing their birth as traumatic” – Dr Rachel Reed. Looking at the maternity care system in Australia, the documentary considered what it would take for women to emerge from their births physically well and emotionally safe.
There are many factors that can make birth traumatic. Some may be linked to the pregnancy period itself, such as going through lengthy IVF treatment, baby loss or suffering with hyperemesis gravidarum. For others it may be suffering a physical birth injury. But for many, it’s triggered by fear, a sense of feeling that either mother or baby is unsafe. This can be brought on by any number of factors such as: enduring a long (or very quick) labour; experiencing pain; feeling a loss of control; or experiencing high levels of medical intervention (including induction or emergency caesarean section – essentially, feeling like birth is being ‘done’ to you). It can be exacerbated by the attitudes of the care-givers around you; a sense of not feeling heard; a lack of information or explanation, a lack of privacy or respect for cultural wishes; experiencing still birth or cases where specialist care is required for baby (or mother) after birth.
Whether a birth is traumatic is very much a subjective matter; it’s whatever the mother says it is. It has less to do with the actual event that happened, rather how it made (and still makes) her feel. Many mothers feel that they should be ‘grateful’ because their baby was born healthy and that somehow, their underlying feelings are invalid.
Experiencing birth in this way can leave mothers (and their partners) experiencing nightmares, flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, feelings of loneliness, isolation, anger, anxiety or depression. I know those feelings myself. How we feel about birth during pregnancy matters. How we feel about it afterwards matters too.
So how can we prevent birth being traumatic? Well, honestly, I guess that in some circumstances we can’t. But, in many, many cases, there is so much that can be done. Educating parents, care-givers and normalising birth is crucial, as is allowing women who do experience difficult births to be heard, with compassion, so that their experience is acknowledged and validated. In Western society birth has become a medicalised process; one that is perceived to be unsafe and that we need to control. We need to help parents own their baby’s birth through information, giving them choices and encouraging them to consider all the possible avenues that birth may take. The Birth Time documentary, for example, considered giving pregnant women the power to choose how to spend funds dedicated to their antenatal care. Aside from that, there is a clear need for more investment in midwife led units and doulas, for example. Feeling safe in the birth room is paramount; it is still perfectly possible to feel safe, well-cared for and positive about your birth experience even if things deviate from what you originally planned or hoped for.
Many women experience birth trauma or suffer with postnatal depression because their birth experience was so far from what they were lead to believe it would be. I find this frustrating because ultimately, none of us can guarantee that someone will have a certain ‘type’ of birth. Contrary to what many believe, hypnobirthing is not a ‘type’ of birth. I’ve come across a few sceptics in my time. There are those that roll their eyes and laugh saying, “oh yes, that’s just breathing the baby out isn’t it?”. There are those that assume it means no use of any sort of pain relief, whatsoever. And then there are those who are made to feel that they failed at hypnobirthing because they made a noise or didn’t have their baby in water listening to some sort of hippy whale music.
Let me be clear. You cannot fail at birth. Your body cannot fail at birth. Your baby cannot fail at birth. Those people have been misinformed. Birth is hard work but your body is incredibly capable. Hypnobirthing provides you with the tools and techniques to help you and your partner feel empowered. It helps you to understand how to make informed choices about the things you can control and how to acknowledge and let go of the things that you can’t. Whilst acknowledging your preferences, it guides you through all the twists and turns that birth may take, helping you to feel supported, calm and prepared. Ultimately, it helps you and your partner to feel positive about the experience and that you had the birth that was right for you and your baby on the day. It can’t get any better than that can it?