Traumatic Births & Postnatal PTSD

With my firstborn, my waters prematurely ruptured five weeks early as I was heading out the door to write my first exam of the semester. My daughter arrived 19 hours later after an induction and an episiotomy. With my second born, I wasn’t sure what natural contractions felt like and initially mistook them for Braxton Hicks since it was occurring all week. I was almost 9 cm dilated when I arrived at the hospital at my parents’ insistence. My son was born a little over an hour later after another episiotomy which required 27 stitches. At almost 39 weeks, he was my easiest birth. I went into labour naturally and delivered naturally without any pain medication. With my third born, I was induced with a two part painful induction at 37 weeks after he showed signs of significant distress in utero. I was restricted to the bed for a little over 19 hours until he made his appearance after yet again another episiotomy. Despite having had births that didn’t exactly go according to plan, I was fortunate enough not to have lingering feelings that impacted me. It was why I never expected anything more than another painful induction with my youngest. When I was scheduled to be induced at noon at 36 weeks exact, I assumed I’d give birth later that night and head on home.

I never expected my blood pressure to drop. I never expected to develop a fever. And most of all I never expected baby girl’s strong, perfect heartbeat to drop so suddenly and disappear causing alarm and requiring an internal heart monitor to be placed while in labour with overlapping contractions. I never expected her umbilical cord to wrap around her head and my OBGYN having to untangle it. And I sure didn’t expect to be wheeled down to the OR, with an internal fetal heart rate monitor dangling between my legs at 1:47 AM while I signed papers and made less than minute long phone calls to my dad and husband before the nurse took my phone. I wasn’t new to surgery, but I never imagined there would be a circumstance where I’d be strapped down feeling the pressure and pain of my doctor’s hands inside my abdomen trying to pull out my baby. I wasn’t administered the required dose of spinal anesthetic because it was unsafe given my blood pressure was already too low. Even though everything transpired within just nine minutes it was terribly long to wait to see if I would be leaving the hospital with a baby or alone. A few hours after surgery, just as I was settling down, baby girl choked on vomit and her lips turned blue. After she got the clear, all I wanted to do was go home and be with my family. I actually asked to be released 24 hours later instead of staying the required three days, alone.

I didn’t realize how traumatic this birth was until I kept vividly reliving what had happened as my heart beat quickened and body turned sweaty every time I closed my eyes to try to sleep or rest. I always felt on edge and looking back I was certainly hyper vigilant. I’d never felt this way after any of my previous births so it was a strange new feeling. I chalked it up to the prenatal anxiety and focused on keeping busy and ignoring the intrusive thoughts. I avoided it until I couldn’t. Seven months after my daughter’s birth I openly spoke about the experience in detail. It gave me the opportunity to sort of validate what had happened and the feelings that were associated with it. I’m sharing this because postnatal post-traumatic stress disorder following complicated childbirth is quite common. Yet we often neglect the mother’s birth experience while placing all our attention on the new baby. And when mothers do open up, we often innocently tell them, “at least your baby is healthy/alive” minimizing her feelings to the point it becomes a burden that she carries alone. It’s important to remember that recovery from a traumatic birth occurs with not only time but with support and empathetic conversations. 

If any of what I’ve described reminds you of your own birth experience, please don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor, a counselor, and loved ones for support.

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