Past experience of trauma

Having a baby can be an exciting time. But if you’ve had a traumatic experience in the past, you may find some tough feelings come back when you’re planning a pregnancy or you find out you are pregnant.  

This page is for you if you have had certain types of trauma related to sex and/or pregnancy in the past.

For example, you may have experienced complications or loss during a previous pregnancy or childbirth, had birth trauma, or been through sexual abuse in the past.  

You can get support from your healthcare team, and there’s a list of other organisations at the bottom of the page that can help you too.

On this page

Birth trauma

A previous pregnancy loss

Fear of childbirth

Sexual abuse

Physical examinations

Labour and birth

More information and support

Birth trauma

Sometimes, something happens during childbirth that can make you feel frightened or out of control. This can cause birth partners to become very distressed too.

Perhaps there were concerns about your health or your baby’s health during labour, or you may have been hoping for a different type of delivery to the one you had. You might have felt like you were left alone when you needed help.  

If you have had a difficult birth in the past, this doesn’t mean the same thing will happen again. Many people go on to have a positive experience in future pregnancies. But we know the idea of another birth can still feel very scary or worrying.

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 

If you’re having flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety or negative thoughts about a past experience of pregnancy or childbirth, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This is a form of anxiety disorder that’s caused by a very stressful, frightening or distressing event. It can develop straight away, or after weeks, months or even years.

PTSD can be treated with talking therapies and medication, so try your best to tell your GP, midwife or health visitor if you’re having upsetting thoughts about your pregnancy or childbirth. They can help.

PTSD can sometimes lead to a fear of giving birth (known as tokophobia – see below).

A previous pregnancy loss

Losing a baby during pregnancy or after the birth is a deeply personal and traumatic experience. You may find you need professional support to help you come to terms with what’s happened.

If your mental health gets worse after losing a baby, your GP or midwife may refer you to a doctor who supports people in distress (a clinical psychologist). They can give you advice and offer you talking therapies.

Read more about your grief, trauma and mental health after a miscarriage here.

It’s natural to feel worried about whether the same thing will happen again in future pregnancies. Your healthcare team will help make sure you’re as healthy as you can be if you’re planning a pregnancy.  

If you have had one or two early miscarriages before, there’s a good chance of having a successful pregnancy in the future.  

If you’ve had a stillbirth before your healthcare team will monitor you and your baby closely throughout your pregnancy. You will have extra scans and antenatal appointments.

Read more about:

Fear of childbirth

Lots of women and birthing people feel anxious or worried about giving birth. But some people feel so afraid that they don’t want to go through with childbirth. This is called tokophobia.  

Although anxiety about childbirth is common, tokophobia is a mental illness, and it is much less common. 

You may be more likely to develop tokophobia if you’ve had a bad experience in the past, such as previous birth trauma, an anxiety or mood disorder, or sexual abuse.

If you have a fear of childbirth, you may avoid talking about it or watching anything about childbirth on the TV. Some people ask for a c-section so they don’t have to go through labour, and some may feel they don’t want to carry on with the pregnancy, even though they want a baby.

Talk to your doctor or midwife about your fears as early in your pregnancy as you can. If you have a fear of childbirth, they should offer to refer you to a specialist mental health midwife, a consultant midwife or a perinatal mental health professional.

You will be offered support to help you cope with your feelings and the chance to talk about your options for giving birth. You may also be offered talking and relaxation therapies. You can ask to visit the labour ward or birth centre in advance if this would help you.

If you feel like your treatment for tokophobia isn’t working, talk to your midwife or doctor about having a planned caesarean section. They will discuss the risks and benefits of having a caesarean compared to a vaginal birth.

Read more about fear of childbirth here.

Sexual abuse

The effects of sexual abuse can last a long time. Tough feelings may come back when you’re thinking about having a baby, or during pregnancy. You might worry about how your past will affect your pregnancy and your baby.  

‘Sometimes I feel excited about the thought of having a baby, sometimes I feel terrified, sometimes I think that my childhood sexual abuse has damaged me too much and that I would ruin my future children's lives if I decided to have them. Other times, I feel more positive about it and think I would be a good mum.’ 
From the Survivor’s Trust online resource - Pregnancy, Birth and Parenthood after Childhood Sexual Abuse

You can talk to your GP, perinatal mental health team or midwife at any time about how pregnancy is making you feel. You can tell them about your past if you want to, but you don’t have to.

The Survivor’s Trust has an online resource to help women who have experienced childhood sexual abuse (CSA) to prepare for pregnancy, birth and parenthood.

Physical examinations

During pregnancy, your midwife will offer you examinations to check that you and the baby are well. For example, from 24 weeks your midwife will use a tape measure to measure your bump, from the top of your bikini line to the top of your uterus.  

The midwife or doctor may ask to do a vaginal examination to see how your labour is progressing. You don’t have to agree to this and there may be other ways of doing these checks.

If you do opt to have a vaginal examination, you can tell the midwife or doctor if you’d like them to stop. Health professionals should always explain what they would like to do and get your permission first. You don’t have to agree to something you don’t feel comfortable with.

Labour and birth

Ask your midwife or doctor to explain what’s happening during labour and birth. This can help you feel safer and more in control. You can make a note of this in your birth plan.

Getting to know your midwife in advance can also help. It may not be possible for you to see the same midwife throughout pregnancy and childbirth, but you could ask if this is something that could be done for you, or if you could see the same two or three midwives throughout. 

Keeping upright and moving around during labour can help you feel more in control. Read more about how your birth partner can speak up for you and support your decisions and needs in labour too.

See more ways to prepare yourself for labour and birth.

More information and support

You can talk to a Tommy’s midwife for free, Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm. You can call them on 0800 0147 800 or email [email protected]. All our midwives are trained in bereavement support and will be able to talk to you about what you’re going through. You can also get support from our Facebook support group.

Best Beginnings  
Provides a pregnancy and parenting mobile app called Baby Buddy.

Birth Trauma Association 
Supports people who experience birth trauma or PTSD, and their partners.

For babies born premature or sick.

Provides support and information for anyone experiencing PTSD.

Rape Crisis England and Wales  
Provides services for women and girls who have experienced sexual violence, including rape crisis centres and a live chat helpline.

Rape Crisis Scotland 
Helpline 08088 01 03 02 
Provides a helpline and email support for anyone in Scotland affected by sexual violence.

The Survivor’s Trust  
Information and support for women who have experienced childhood sexual abuse, to prepare for pregnancy, birth and parenthood.

You can also use our Planning a Pregnancy tool to help you get ready to start trying for a baby. 

Fenech G, Thomson G. (2014). Tormented by ghosts from their past: A meta-synthesis to explore the psychosocial implications of a traumatic birth on maternal well-being. Midwifery 30: 185–193.

NHS. Feeling depressed after childbirth. (Page last reviewed: 15 July 2022. Next review due: 15 July 2025)

Royal College of Psychiatrists (2021). Perinatal mental health services: Recommendations for the provision of services for childbearing women CR232

 Wojcieszek AM et al. (2018). Care prior to and during subsequent pregnancies following stillbirth for improving outcomes. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews Issue 12. 

Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists (2016). Early miscarriage

Wojcieszek AM et al. (2018) Care prior to and during subsequent pregnancies following stillbirth for improving outcomes. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews Issue 12. Art. No.: CD012203. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD012203.pub2.

Lewis LN, Nath S, Howard L (2018). Sixty seconds on . . . tokophobia: rapid response

 Pan-London Perinatal Mental Health Networks (2018). Fear of Childbirth (Tokophobia) and Traumatic Experience of Childbirth: Best Practice Toolkit

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2014, updated 2020). Antenatal and postnatal mental health: clinical management and service guidance. Clinical guideline [CG192]. 

Pregnancy, Birth and Parenthood after Childhood Sexual Abuse (accessed 2024) 

Review dates
Reviewed: 27 June 2024
Next review: 27 June 2027