Past experience of trauma

Having a baby is a positive and exciting experience for many women. But if you have had a traumatic experience in the past, you may find some of the difficult feelings come back when you’re planning a pregnancy or become pregnant.

This page is for you if you have had a traumatic experience in the past. For example, you may have experienced complications or loss during a previous pregnancy or childbirth, had birth trauma, experienced childhood sexual abuse or had post traumatic stress disorder.

There is support available from your healthcare team and other support organisations to help you.

On this page

Birth trauma

A previous pregnancy loss

Fear of childbirth

Childhood sexual abuse

Birth trauma

Sometimes something happens during childbirth that can make you feel frightened or out of control. For example, you may have felt like you were left alone when you needed help, there may have been concerns about your health or your baby’s health during labour or you may have been expecting a different type of delivery to the one you had. This can be distressing for partners too.

Sometimes these feelings can lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You are more likely to get PTSD if you felt distressed or if there were complications during labour. The chances of getting PTSD are lower if you have the support you need from your healthcare team and your partner, if you have one. Lack of sleep can make it harder to cope so support from family and friends after the birth can also help.

If you have had a difficult experience of childbirth in the past, this doesn’t mean that the same thing will happen again. Many women go on to have a positive experience in future pregnancies.

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

If you’re having flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety or negative thoughts about a previous bad experience during pregnancy or childbirth, you may have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is a form of anxiety caused by a 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 it’s important to tell your GP, midwife or health visitor if you’re having upsetting thoughts about your pregnancy or childbirth.

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

A previous pregnancy loss

Losing a baby during pregnancy or after the birth is a deeply personal and traumatic experience that affects people differently. You may need 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 with emotional or psychological distress (clinical psychologist). They can give you advice and offer you talking therapies.

Many women have huge anxiety about whether the same thing will happen again in future pregnancies. Your healthcare team will help you make sure you’re as healthy as you can be if you’re planning another pregnancy.

If you have had an early miscarriage before, there’s a good chance of having a successful pregnancy in the future.

There is a higher chance of having a stillbirth if you’ve had one before but your healthcare team will monitor you and your baby closely throughout your pregnancy. You may have extra scans and antenatal (before birth) appointments. 

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Fear of childbirth

It’s natural to feel anxious or worried about giving birth. But some women 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 is rare. It can be caused by something that happened to you in the past, such as a previous bad experience during childbirth, 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 women ask for a c-section so they don’t have to go through labour and some may feel they don’t want to continue with the pregnancy.

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 you an appointment with 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 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.

You can read more about fear of childbirth here.

Childhood sexual abuse

Deciding to have a baby is a big decision for anyone, but if you have experienced childhood sexual abuse it can feel more scary.

The effects of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) can last a long time and may come back when you’re thinking about having a baby or during pregnancy. You may have difficult feelings about what happened to you and worry about how it 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 affecting the way you feel as well as your physical health. You can tell them about your past experience 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.

When you’re in labour, the midwife or doctor may ask to do a vaginal examination, for example 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 have a vaginal examination, you can tell the midwife or doctor if you’re finding it uncomfortable or if you’d like them to stop.

Health professionals should explain what they would like to do and get your permission first. You don’t have to agree to anything you don’t feel comfortable with.

Labour and birth

Asking your midwife or doctor to explain what’s happening during labour and birth can help you feel safer and more in control. Getting to know your midwife in advance can also help. It’s not always possible to see the same midwife throughout pregnancy and childbirth, but you could ask if this is something that is available in your area.

Keeping upright and moving around during labour can help you feel more in control.

More information and support

Birth Trauma Association
Supports women who experience birth trauma or PTSD and provides information for their partners.

PTSD UK
Provides support and information for anyone experiencing PTSD.

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

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

Sands – Stillbirth & neonatal death charity
Supports anyone who has been affected by the death of a baby before, during or shortly after birth.

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

Tommy's

Tommy’s is here to help you with any aspect of pregnancy loss or complications. You can talk to a Tommy’s midwife free of charge, 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 pregnancy after loss facebook support group.

More information on this topic

More support for you

Thinking ahead

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    Last reviewed on July 24th, 2020. Next review date July 24th, 2023.

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