When Birth Doesn’t Go As Planned: Coping with Unexpected Trauma

Giving birth is a life changing event that’s fraught with a lot of emotions. Birth stories are sacred stories and as a result, need to be handled with lots of care and tenderness. When birth doesn’t go as planned you can feel a range of emotions from disappointment to devastation. You may be left coping with unexpected trauma when birth doesn’t go as planned.

Birth is a life changing event and leaves a lasting impression on us so the stories we tell ourselves about this experience matters. Birth stories are not always clean, delightful and filled with fond memories. They are sometimes heavy, complex, messy and colored with pain. Particularly when we experience things that feel wrong or bad to us. It’s just as important what happened as what didn’t happen. What you didn’t get to experience matters too. The losses we experience in our birth stories are valid losses and need to be acknowledged.

Identifying Trauma

Let’s first discuss some key things to keep in mind regarding trauma. Trauma is specifically an event that overwhelms the central nervous system. It’s a response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event. It’s subjective and can have adverse effects.

Some experiences that might lead to birth trauma include:

  • Unplanned or emergency C-section
  • Instrumental delivery (use of forceps or vacuum)
  • Birth injury to you or your baby
  • NICU stay
  • Stillbirth or neonatal death
  • Having a difficult labor
  • Not receiving the medical care or emotional support you needed
  • Poorly managed pain
  • Not being listened to or feeling dismissed by your care providers
  • Birth complications (like too much bleeding or a vaginal tear)
  • Not receiving the care or support you expected/needed

Unresolved trauma simply doesn’t just go away. It can result in long-term wounds that feel tender for years beyond birth.

Coping with unexpected trauma when birth doesn’t go as planned

Validate don’t dismiss
Your trauma is valid no matter what your birth story looks like. The end doesn’t justify the means. So even if the outcome was positive, what you experienced and how you experienced it matters. Don’t dismiss your pain and gaslight yourself into feeling that you “should” be grateful. You are not making something out of nothing, hanging on to the past, overreacting or being dramatic. How you feel about your birth experience matters.

It’s okay to not be okay
It’s important to acknowledge how you feel and the impact this experience has had on you. Over 1⁄3 of births are experienced as traumatic by either the birth giver or their partner. This is an alarming number and goes to show how common this is. Just because something is common however, does not make it okay. So it’s okay if you are not okay.

Develop and use coping statements
Use positive self statements that acknowledge and validate your experience.

“I’m allowed to feel this way about my experience.”
“It’s okay to feel this way about my birth story.”
“There is no right or wrong way to feel about my experience.”
“I release myself from feelings of shame and guilt. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Seek Support
Trauma is highly treatable. Seeking support is the best way you can care for yourself and work towards feeling better. Seeking therapy allows you to tell your story and have a safe and supportive space to process that story.

Nervous system regulation
Once our brain has tagged something as traumatic, it has tagged it to be processed differently than a normal memory. Learning how to regulate your nervous system can be a helpful way to cope when you feel activated by difficult memories.

Debrief with your provider
Debriefing with your provider can be an opportunity to talk about what happened and ask questions related to what happened as well as discuss any potential implications for the future.

It matters how you feel about your birth. If your birth story is in need of healing, consider joining our birth story group.

Kerri-Anne Brown

Kerri-Anne Brown

Hi, I'm Kerri-Anne and I'm a licensed mental health counselor in Orlando, FL. I help individuals and couples who are living with fertility challenges, perinatal loss, birth trauma and difficulties with postpartum adjustments. Please feel free to reach out anytime.

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