Recovering from a difficult birth
This information is for anyone who feels that they’ve had a difficult or traumatic experience giving birth. We also have more specific information for people who have experienced a premature birth or baby loss.
What is a difficult birth?
There are lots of reasons why people may feel their birth was a difficult or traumatic experience. Some people experience complications before or after the birth that most people would understand to be traumatic, such as an assisted birth, perineal tears or problems with pain management in labour.
Other people may have had an apparently normal birth but feel disappointed or distressed. This may be because they feel they weren’t listened to, felt like they had no control over what was happening, or felt they weren’t treated with respect or dignity. Some people need time to mourn the birth experience they didn’t have.
It’s also possible for any 2 people to have the same experience but have completely different feelings about it. Everyone has their own perspective on what happens in life.
“I found my induction quite traumatic. I felt as though I should feel happy to ‘go along with what the professionals were telling me to do,’ however it was a battle as I didn’t want the induction and felt pushed into a corner. I remember the consultant coming to see me and quite ‘matter-of-factly’ saying she was going to break my waters even though I wasn’t in labour. I didn’t feel in control. Following the birth, it took a long time to come to terms with how I felt.”
Partners may be distressed after childbirth too. This could be because they may have seen their partner in distress or pain, because they felt helpless, or even because they missed the birth or could not be in the room when their baby was born.
Whatever the reason, one or both parents may need some time or extra support to recover from the experience. If you are having negative thoughts about childbirth, for whatever reason, you are not alone. There are many other parents who feel the same way. Your healthcare professionals will be able to support you.
“Feelings can definitely be suppressed. Personally, I felt that as long as the baby and myself are ok now, that this was the main thing. This may be especially true for people who have had previous miscarriages or stillbirth. They are so grateful to bring their baby home. My health visitor asked if I would like them to raise a complaint on my behalf. I didn’t feel that would offer a resolution nor would it change what had happened at the birth, and at the time would likely have caused more stress.”
Other factors that can impact your emotional health
Unfortunately, there are some aspects of life with a newborn that may make your recovery difficult. This can include the baby blues, a lack of sleep, difficulties breastfeeding and the physical recovery from birth.
The early weeks with a baby can be full of emotions. They can also be overwhelming. Try not to be too hard on yourself. The first few weeks after having a baby are mostly about muddling through. Things will get better.
What are the effects of a difficult birth?
The effects of a difficult birth vary from parent to parent. Some new parents have told us that they had issues such as:
- poor self-esteem
- feelings of failure or inadequacy
- difficulties bonding with their baby
- relationship problems
- postnatal depression
- fear of pregnancy or childbirth.
The Birth Trauma Association (BTA) defines birth trauma as a shorthand term for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Symptoms of PTSD can include:
- flashbacks to the experience
- nightmares about the experience
- repetitive and distressing images or sensations
- physical sensations such as pain, sweating, feeling sick (nausea) or trembling
- constant negative thoughts about the experience
- trying to feel nothing at all (emotional numbing) and trying to distract yourself to avoid thinking about what happened
- avoiding places, people or other things that remind you of the traumatic event.
You may recognise some of these feelings or you may think yours are not as intense or severe as this. It is important to find the best way to address these feelings and get support if you need it.
How can I recover from a traumatic birth?
Here are some suggestions of things you can try to help you move forward in a positive way. Whatever you do, it’s important not to suppress your feelings. Many parents feel that they have to ‘put on a happy face’ after having a baby because it’s such a significant life event.
However, the reality of becoming new parents is often much more complicated. If you are feeling low or distressed, do not suffer in silence or ignore how you feel. Recognising your feelings for what they are will help you move on.
Don't blame yourself
Many parents struggle with feelings of failure after a difficult birth. They sometimes feel that, somehow, their body let them down, or they let their baby down by not having a straightforward birth. Partners may feel like they let their partner down by not helping enough or stopping their pain.
This can leave people feeling like they have ‘failed the first test’ as parents. But whatever happened, it is not your fault. Labour and birth are different for everyone and some are more complicated than others. Have faith that you did and will always do the best you can for you and your baby.
Talk to your healthcare professional
If you’re worried about how you or your partner are feeling, you can talk to your midwife, health visitor or GP. They can talk to you about what’s happening and give you advice about what to do next. You may be referred to a mental health specialist who can support you.
Your treatment will depend on what your symptoms are and how severe they are. Treatments may include talking therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and medication.
Don’t be afraid to tell someone how you feel – you won’t be judged. It is common for both parent’s mental health to be affected after having a baby and your healthcare professionals are aware of this.
Talk to people you trust
Unfortunately, other people’s reactions to your experience may not be helpful. Childbirth is common and so is often seen as ‘normal’. This may be why it’s often hard for some people to see why others would find it emotionally difficult or traumatic.
Most people mean well and want to help. But if they don’t understand how you feel, for whatever reason, they may end up saying the wrong thing. For example, comments such as ‘at least it’s over now’ or ‘look at what you have to show for it’ may be well intentioned. But they may make you feel like you are over-reacting.
Partners may be made to feel that their feelings aren’t valid or be overlooked completely by other people because they are not the ones who gave birth.
This can all be difficult to cope with. But try to focus on the people who understand what you are going through and can offer the support you need. This may be your partner, a family member or friend.
It may also help to talk to other parents who have been through similar experiences. The Birth Trauma Association has a Facebook Group for parents.
Don’t compare yourself to other people
You may also find yourself getting upset or annoyed by other people’s birth stories, especially if they apparently went well. These feelings are common, so don’t be too hard on yourself.
It can be very hard but try not to compare your experience to other people’s. This can leave you feeling unhappy, distressed and resentful.
Instead, focus on how you feel about what has happened to you and finding a positive way to move forward.
“I was induced and delivered a healthy baby boy. Unfortunately, I started to haemorrhage and had to be rushed to theatre, leaving behind a newborn with my husband. I felt huge pangs of guilt, fear, and was exhausted. My son was then shortly after taken to SCBU experiencing difficulty breathing. I knew that I didn't have all the answers I needed about the birth and what happened following. I spoke to a midwife on the ward who told me about the debriefing service and when my son was 6 months old, I went to the labour ward and met with the senior midwife to discuss my notes. It was difficult reliving the process. There were lots of tears, but I got to ask questions and understand the complications. While having another child isn't something I'm considering right now, we also talked through the support and options that would be available. Overall, it helped me come to terms with the experience and deal with my feelings.”
Use a debriefing service
Most hospitals offer a birth debriefing service. This is when you can talk to a doctor or midwife about your labour and birth, go through your maternity notes and ask any questions you need to understand what happened.
Your midwife can refer you for this service when you are still on the postnatal ward but you can also access the service after you’ve left. Contact your maternity unit or ask your health visitor or midwife what’s available locally.
Don’t worry if you don’t feel ready to go over your birth experience for months, or even years. You can access this service when you are ready. You can use this service alone or your partner can go with you. However, partners cannot access a debriefing service alone because it involves going through the confidential medical records of the person who gave birth. If you need help, speak to your health visitor or GP who can organise the appropriate treatment or referral to a mental health specialist.
“I struggled after the birth and so did my husband. He couldn’t get out of his head seeing me having a hard time during the birth. He was also traumatised waiting for so long for me to arrive from theatre after the birth as he thought he had lost me. Our midwife told us about the after-birth service and we booked an appointment. We spoke to the head midwife who went through my notes and explained everything that had happened, including why I was in theatre longer than usual. It gave us an opportunity to give suggestions for improvements in the way they could communicate with parents, which they took on board and put our minds at rest on several issues. “
Making a complaint
Some people may feel that talking to their healthcare professionals has not helped or that they are still not being listened to. If you feel this way or you would like to take a more formal step you can make a complaint using the formal NHS complaints Procedure. This is a very good way of outlining your concerns in a letter and you can then submit these to the hospital involved.
After getting your formal complaint letter, the hospital should initiate a formal NHS complaints Investigation. They should speak to the healthcare professionals who were involved in your medical care and your medical records and provide a full and substantive response to the questions you have put forward and the issues raised in your complaint.
The Birth Trauma Association has more information about making a formal complaint.
Have some professional counselling
Sometimes it can help to talk to a trained therapist, either with your partner or alone. You can access talking therapies on the NHS.
If you live in England, your GP or midwife or health visitor can refer you. Or you can refer yourself directly to an NHS psychological therapies service (IAPT). Self-referral is not available in every part of the UK, but your GP, midwife or health visitor will be able to tell you what’s available where you live.
Some people have private counselling, although this can be expensive. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy has a directory of qualified counsellors in your area if this is something you’d like to look into.
Take care of yourself
It’s important for both parents to look after themselves. If you gave birth, remember that you are trying to recover physically as well as emotionally.
As a new parent, you’ve got a lot to deal with. It can be hard at times, but try to look after your needs as well as your baby’s. It may help to:
- eat a healthy balanced diet
- stay hydrated
- try to rest or sleep when your baby sleeps – find out more about coping with sleepless nights
- do something you enjoy every day, such as having a long shower, watching an episode of your favourite show or listening to music
- accept any help offered – remember that you’re allowed time off
- believe in yourself as a good parent and give yourself a break – remember that being a good parent doesn't mean being perfect
- get out of the house and get active – this could be as simple as going for a short walk
- share the care with your partner (if you have one) as much as you can.
Self-care doesn’t always have to be about doing something other than looking after your baby. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit down and do absolutely nothing.
How can I support someone if they are struggling after a difficult birth?
Supporting someone who is finding it difficult to recover from a difficult or traumatic birth can be very upsetting. But here are things you can do to help:
- encourage them to seek help from their GP, health visitor or midwife
- encourage them to use the debriefing service and go with them for support
- remind them that they aren’t going mad or being irrational and they will get better
- reassure them that you are there to support them.
It can sometimes be hard to be patient with people who are struggling with their mental health, especially if you don’t fully understand or appreciate what’s happening. But try not to dismiss or ignore how they are feeling or tell them ‘to get over it’.
Supporting someone with a mental health problem can be emotional, so make sure you take care of yourself too. It may help for you to talk to a professional counsellor too so you have an outlet for your feelings.
Having another baby after a traumatic birth
If you’ve had a difficult birth before, it may affect how you feel about getting pregnant again. If you want another baby but are still struggling with your feelings, it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional before you start trying. This gives you another opportunity to talk about your previous pregnancy and how you can have a better experience next time.
Your GP or antenatal clinic at your local hospital may be able to refer you for preconception planning.
Of course, pregnancies aren’t always planned. Or sometimes women get pregnant and then realise their anxieties about childbirth are worse than they thought. These anxieties are different for everyone.
Some women may even become afraid of childbirth or feel they want to terminate their pregnancy. Whatever the circumstances, tell your doctor or midwife how you feel as soon as you can. They will do their best to give you non-judgemental advice, reassure you or refer you to someone who can give you the support you need, such as a specialist mental health midwife.
There are lots of things you can do to ease your anxiety about labour and birth, including:
- start thinking about how you want to give birth and make a birth plan. This can help you feel more organised and in control.
- find a local antenatal class. This will give you the opportunity to meet others in a similar situation and find out more about what happens in labour. Most of these are targeted at first-time parents but you may be able to find something suitable for you.
- try hypnobirthing. This may help you relax.
- make a wellbeing plan. Our Pregnancy and Post-birth Wellbeing Plan is designed to help you think about your mental health during and after pregnancy
- have a birth partner or use a doula to support you.
Find more tips on what you can do if you’re feeing nervous about giving birth.
More support and information
If there is anything you need to talk about, you can talk to a Tommy’s midwife free of charge from 9am–5pm, Monday to Friday on 0800 0147 800 or email them at [email protected]
Anxiety UK is an organisation run by with anxiety disorders, offering information, support and therapies for people experiencing anxiety.
BabyCentre offers a traumatic birth support group where you can chat and share your experiences with others going through the same thing.
The Birth Trauma Association (BTA) is a charity that supports women who suffer birth trauma – a shorthand term for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after birth.
British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) provides information for those who are considering some form of counselling. Call them on 01455 883316.
The Couple Connection provides relationship advice and support.
MIND is a mental health charity providing information, support, local groups and an online chatroom. They have specific information about postnatal depression and perinatal mental health, including postnatal PTSD and birth trauma.
No Panic provides Online and telephone support for people suffering from panic attacks, phobias, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and anxiety disorders.
Reed, R., Sharman, R., & Inglis, C. (2017). Women's descriptions of childbirth trauma relating to care provider actions and interactions. BMC pregnancy and childbirth, 17(1), 21. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-016-1197-0
Daniels, E., Arden-Close, E., & Mayers, A. (2020). Be quiet and man up: a qualitative questionnaire study into fathers who witnessed their Partner's birth trauma. BMC pregnancy and childbirth, 20(1), 236. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-020-02902-2
NHS Choices. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/ (Page last reviewed: 27/09/2018. Next review due: 27/09/2021)