December 3, 2014
Although post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is generally associated with traumatic events such as war, assault, or a disaster, around 1 to 6% of women experience it after childbirth. The majority of women who experience PTSD after childbirth also experienced a traumatic delivery in which their baby was injured during the process.
Unfortunately, there are a host of birth injuries that continuously occur during labor and delivery, many of which are caused by medical negligence and careless mistakes, and new evidence suggest that these actions can do long-term mental harm to mothers. Recently, the medical world has recognized that PTSD can develop after a traumatic birth experience, especially if birth injuries are involved.
Factors That Determine the Likelihood of Maternal PTSD
To determine which women will be more likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic childbirth, there are usually several factors that need to be looked at, including pre-existing medical and psychological problems, the extent of the traumatic birth experience, and how much support is available after birth.
For example, if a mother has previous issues with other forms of trauma in her past, depression, anxiety issues, or any other psychological condition, the chances of developing PTSD may increase after her infant experiences a birth injury and/or she undergoes an extremely difficult birth.
Women who feel they have no control during the birth period or experience prolonged stress, excessive blood loss, or a delivery in which birth-assisted tools (forceps or vacuum extraction tool) are used. If a birth injury should occur, harming her infant in ways that can’t be controlled, the chance of PTSD heightens. Women who experience this type of trauma may go over the experience in their minds over and over, trying to think of ways in which they could have prevented the injuries from happening in the first place, but in most cases, the birth injuries usually have nothing to with the mothers.
A good support system, however, such as family, friends, and other loved ones, may help greatly in reducing the chances of mothers developing PTSD.
Is it Really PTSD?
There is often confusion in determining if a new mother is experiencing PTSD or postpartum depression. However, PTSD symptoms are quite different than depression symptoms. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM, 5th edition), victims of PTSD exhibit symptoms such as:
- Constantly reliving the traumatic event, having flashbacks, and unwanted, intrusive thoughts
- Chronically avoiding anything that is a reminder of the event, such as refusing to go to a hospital
- Anger outbursts, irritability, insomnia, and and hyperviligance as a coping mechanism to the traumatic event
- Recurrent dreams of the event
- Feelings of detachment and estrangement
- Sensing that the future will be shortened (career, marriage, and/or lifespan may seem shortened)
- Exaggerated, startled responses
- Nightmares, negative moods, and chronic psychological distress
While postpartum depression can certainly cause some of the aforementioned symptoms, such as irritability and angry outbursts, people can develop depression without having went through a traumatic event. In addition, depression isn’t always linked to focusing on one sole event. Although people with PTSD can have depression, not all people with depression will develop it because of PTSD. Furthermore, not all women with postpartum depression will have the criteria needed for a PTSD diagnosis, as defined in the DSM.
What To Do if You Think You Have PTSD
As mentioned earlier, a caring support group after a traumatic birth experience is vital. If you don’t have a support team, reach out to local community resources and organizations for assistance. In addition, it’s important to see a mental healthcare provider as soon as possible, as people with PTSD generally need professional help in dealing with the symptoms. For more assistance and information, feel free to contact Birth Injury Guide at 877-415-6603.
- Ayers, S., Pickering, A.D. (2001). Do women get posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of childbirth? A prospective study of incidence.Birth, 28(2), pp. 111-118.
- Ford E, Ayers S. Stressful events and support during birth: The effect on anxiety, mood and perceived control. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. 2009;23:260-8.