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Be ready to deal with the ‘quiet horror’ of a traumatic birth

My nephew was born after a traumatic caesarean section 22 years ago and I witnessed the emotional harm it caused my sister for years to come.

I’m not telling an unusual story here, by the way: giving birth is terrifying for many women. The Birth Trauma Association estimates at least 20,000 women suffer birth trauma every year.

So, my nephew was due early in the July. My sister and brother-in-law were ready for their first baby: they’d been to the NCT classes, learnt about the breathing and ‘what to expect’. (Though it turned out nobody had talked about what could go wrong.)

End of the month and still no nephew, it was decided my sister should be induced on the morning of 1 August*  Small-framed, she was overwhelmed by her huge bump.

‘My sister’s strength and blood pressure had dropped’

Early that evening I joined her husband at the hospital to give support and encouragement. But by midnight – after hours and hours of contractions – my sister’s strength and blood pressure had dropped and I could see she was in dreadful distress, dropping in and out of consciousness. After shouting out to the midwives, my sister was raced into theatre to have an emergency C-section. She opted for an epidural, so she could be awake for the birth. I waited anxiously outside the theatre.

I will never forget how she looked when I saw her back on the ward. She was awake but looked as close to death as you could imagine. She just kept pressing a red button in her hand, which I later found out was morphine. This was happening alongside the jubilation at a new life: My nephew with big brown eyes, looked more like a six-month-old being a month overdue. While tears of joy overtook her husband, (and me) my sister did not have the strength to hold her baby. I could see the absolute trauma she had been through. 

Luckily I’d already booked a week off work to help out. My sister was completely debilitated: having had major surgery, she couldn’t lift Luke for a feed, let alone change nappies. She couldn’t drive. 

‘She thought was going to die that night’

I noticed my sister’s bonding with Luke seemed distant but functional. Though she was doing everything she could to bottle feed him, change him and look after him I could see the maternal loving instinct was delayed. Their bonding and attachment on first meeting had been marred by my sister having major surgery for the first time in her life.  

Some years later, she said she thought she was going to die that night. I mentioned that she may have post-traumatic stress disorder – little talked about then and then only in relation to soldiers.

But the emotional trauma stayed with my sister. Though her bond with Luke grew, I often wondered if the trauma of his arrival caused my sister to have a subliminal emotional detachment towards him – the entirely innocent cause of her pain.

‘Quiet horror’ of post birth PTSD

‘Quiet horror’ is how freelance journalist and mental health advocate Robyn Wilder describes traumatic labour in her contribution to Life Lessons from Remarkable Women: Tales of Triumph, Failure and Learning to Love Yourself. Describing her PTSD following the difficult birth of her son, she says: ‘It was only in the weeks afterwards, when (very unwanted) images of blood and broken babies kept flashing before my eyes, that I realised how much my labour had affected me.’

And she says, this ‘quiet horror’ is something that ‘no one talks about very much …  Yet it happens. Post-birth PTSD is a thing, and it’s different from the baby blues.’ 

We need to acknowledge and talk about it.

Serena Williams’ experience

23-time grand slam singles champion, UNICEF goodwill ambassador and businesswoman Serena Williams went public with her terrifying birth experience his year, writing for CNN:  ‘I almost died after giving birth to my daughter, Olympia.’ Complications after her daughter’s birth saw Serena rushed into life-saving surgery several times. She said she was lucky to have ‘excellent medical care’ and called on people to donate to charities that help mothers and newborns who are not so lucky.

Your employees

When your employees go off to have children there is an expectation that all will happen naturally, and that mother and baby will be ‘doing fine’. 

But what if your employee has a horrendous, traumatic birth, like my sister, and Robyn, and Serena. Or worse still, if the baby is stillborn. 

Symptoms of trauma

An employee who has experienced birth trauma might show signs of: 

  • sadness, anxiety and low self-esteem
  • panic, trembling and restlessness
  • avoiding people, places or situations
  • addictions and compulsive behaviour such as overeating or over shopping
  • catastrophising, where someone imagines the worst possible outcome
  • fear of public speaking and performance anxiety

How EMDR can help

Beyond EAP offers EMDR to support your employee on their return to work after a traumatic birth.

EMDR – eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing – is a psychological therapy recommended as a first-line treatment for PTSD by the National Institute for Healthcare and Clinical Excellence.
It has offered relief and freedom from PTSD since being developed by Dr Francine Shapiro in the 1980s. Now it is used to provide healing and relief from a host of emotional, psychological and physical symptoms and issues.

EMDR can work when counselling doesn’t

  • has immediate results and so works much faster than talking therapies, which can be drawn out and involve reliving painful events
  • is a gentle, non-invasive therapy

Why negative memories are stored

Brains under stress might not process memories properly. Usually, our brains process and ‘make sense’ of our experiences when storing them as memories. But intense and disturbing emotional experiences such as a traumatic birth can overwhelm our processing systems. This leaves our brains unable to make sense of the experience and the negative memories are stored in unprocessed form. This is why time does not heal all wounds; anger, resentment, pain and sorrow are frozen in time and can form today’s emotional and physical problems.

Find out more about EMDR, and our full range of holistic programmes to support your employees.

‘So frightened by the prospect of giving birth again that she made a will’

Four years later my sister unexpectedly became pregnant again. She was so frightened by the prospect of giving birth again that she made a will, anticipating she really may die this time. 

She booked a selective C-section and a ‘private’ room in the same hospital where Luke was born and then she took time to prepare herself for what might happen. 

Hanna came into the world on the afternoon of 8 March 2001. When I visited early that evening, I saw a different sight from five years earlier.  My dear sister was sitting up in bed and holding her gorgeous healthy Hanna, showing her to all the visitors with pride. She had made it through. 

Help your employees make it through. Get in touch with Beyond EAP to learn how EMDR could help your business.

*The NHS now offers induction to all women who don’t go into labour naturally by 42 weeks.
The Birth Trauma Association

Beyond EAP 


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