Birth Trauma Awareness Week occurs worldwide each year in July and is organized by the Birth Trauma Association (BTA) in the UK and the Australian Birth Trauma Association (ABTA) in Australia. This week-long event aims to raise awareness for the millions of mothers, fathers, parents, and gestational carriers who experience trauma after giving birth, losing a pregnancy, or witnessing the birth trauma of someone they love.
What Is Birth Trauma Awareness Week?
Birth Trauma Awareness Week is an international event that starts on the third Sunday of July each year. In 2023, the week will run from July 16th to 22nd. The goals of this week are to:
- Reduce stigma, fear, and isolation in those living with birth trauma
- Improve knowledge of birth trauma in medical circles
- Increase access to proper trauma-informed care—both preventive and to support those impacted
2023 Theme: Postnatal Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
In 2023, Birth Trauma Awareness Week will focus on postnatal post-traumatic stress disorder (P-PTSD). According to a 2014 study published in Clinical Psychology Review, 3% to 16% of all gestational parents experience PTSD after childbirth. Worldwide, this number represents millions of individuals impacted.
Knowing the symptoms of P-PTSD and PTSD in general may help you understand what to look for if you or a loved one has experienced a traumatic birth. Below are a few of the most common:
- Vivid, terrifying memories of the event
- Feeling dissociated or "out of your body"
- Nightmares about the event
- A fear that the event will happen again
- Avoidance of people, places, topics, or situations that may remind you of the event
- Feeling guilty or ashamed about the trauma you experienced
- Feeling hypervigilant, jumpy, or hyperalert
- Difficulty sleeping, eating, or practicing self-care
- Difficulty connecting with your newborn child, if applicable
Professional support can be beneficial and even life-saving for those who experience symptoms of this condition. One reason is that suicidal thoughts or behaviors can be a symptom of PTSD. Another is that many parents experience PTSD along with other concerns like postpartum depression (PPD) or postpartum psychosis, which can be severe and life-threatening conditions. Note, however, that all of these conditions are treatable with qualified, professional support.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors, seek help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24/7 by dialing 988.
What Constitutes A Birth Trauma?
Some think that PTSD only develops after certain situations, such as war or natural disasters. In reality, however, PTSD may develop as a result of many different types of events—including the traumas that can be associated with giving birth. An event that causes PTSD in one person may not in another, and it’s also worth noting that the likelihood of developing this condition after a traumatic event may be up to 40% heritable.
That said, experiences that may constitute birth trauma and could also have the potential to cause PTSD, anxiety, PPD, or other mental health concerns include but are not limited to the following:
- Severe illness during pregnancy
- Being induced
- Having an unexpected C-section
- A birth where forceps are used
- A lengthy, painful labor
- A lack of medical support
- Medical invalidation and maltreatment during birth
- A lack of privacy or care during birth
- A lack of information or explanation about what is happening to you during birth
- A baby who is taken to the NICU immediately after birth
- The birth of a deceased baby
- Fear that you will lose your baby due to medical complications or another concern
- Watching your partner go through a traumatic birth and being unable to help
- Losing your partner to the birth of your child
- Almost dying from birth
- Having a birth complication, such as unusual bleeding
- Being ignored after giving birth
What Does Birth Trauma Awareness Week Teach?
Birth Trauma Awareness Week aims to destigmatize PTSD and other mental health conditions and symptoms related to birth trauma in parents and gestational carriers. Below are two of the key takeaways people may gain from observing and participating in events.
Destigmatization Of Parent Experiences Is Essential
Individuals can help the cause by validating the experiences of parents in their lives and advocating for proper medical support during pregnancy and birth. For example, even simply having an advocate with them when they give birth may increase the likelihood that the doctors and nurses in the room will treat an individual kindly and listen to their wishes for their birth experience.
After giving birth, you might consider meeting with a licensed professional to discuss your experience—or you might encourage new parents in your life to do so—even if you don't think you're living with PTSD, postpartum depression, or another diagnosable mental health condition. Even without the presence of any of these, pregnancy and birth can take a significant toll on one's body, often cause significant pain, and can result in physical and emotional changes that may be stressful or frightening. A professional can provide compassionate support for such challenges.
Anyone Can Have Birth Trauma
According to studies, LGBTQ+ people often experience further stigmatization in the medical system during the birthing process. This may take the form of invalidation toward their family structure or gender identity, disrespectful treatment during birth, or a lack of education and resources on birth and parenthood.
Birth Trauma Awareness Week aims to raise awareness of the fact that anyone of any gender can give birth and experience birth trauma. It also encourages doctors and other healthcare providers to take steps to inform themselves on gender identity and sexuality so they can better support their patients. A few ways medical professionals can avoid perpetuating homophobia and transphobia in the delivery room include:
- Asking the pregnant individual for their pronouns
- Asking the pregnant individual if they prefer to be called "mother," "father," "parent," or another term
- Asking the pregnant individual if there are any steps you can take during birth to make them feel more comfortable
- Asking the family if they prefer a doctor of a specific gender
- Avoiding asking a same-sex couple where "the father is" or where "the mother is"
- Avoiding assuming that one of the parents is a friend, sibling, or grandparent instead of the other parent
- Adding both parents to the birth certificate
- Being respectful of unique family dynamics
- Allowing same-sex partners to accompany their partner in any situation you'd let opposite-sex partners accompany their partner to
Aiming to eliminate homophobia and transphobia and ensuring basic respect and compassionate care during delivery may help reduce the risk of birth trauma for those in the LGBTQ+ community.
Mental Wellness Tips For Those With Birth Trauma
If you're living with a birth trauma or are worried you may experience one when you give birth, there are a few ways to support your own mental well-being as recommended by the organizations behind Birth Trauma Awareness Week.
Validate Your Experiences
Shame and guilt after birth trauma are common, but know that if you feel you were traumatized by a birth and are experiencing distress, you deserve to care for yourself and validate what happened. To this end, you might try to reduce judgmental thoughts about your experiences when they arise and avoid spending time with those who invalidate them or make you feel shame about them.
Keeping a journal to write about your birth experience may also be valuable. Studies suggest that some forms of journaling can help with emotional self-regulation, mitigating distress, and increasing well-being. If you don't know what to write, you might choose to fill your journal with poetry, collages, pictures, drawings, or other art forms.
Join A Support Group
Since birth trauma affects many people worldwide, there may be a support group in your area or online that you can join to discuss your experiences and receive peer support. Having people around who understand what you went through may assist you in reducing shame and negative self-talk about the experience and help you feel less alone.
After giving birth, your body may feel foreign to you or may function differently than before. One way to get back in touch with yourself is self-soothing, a distress tolerance skill from the dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) workbook.
To practice self-soothing, you can choose one coping skill for each of your five senses and take time to practice them as needed. Below are several examples:
- Sight: Look at an album of photos, wear a beautiful outfit, put on makeup you enjoy, watch a movie or TV show you like, people-watch, look outside your window, go to a beautiful natural area, read a book
- Scent: Light a candle or incense, bake bread or cookies, cook an aromatic dinner with many spices, wash your clothes or sheets with fresh-smelling detergent
- Sound: Listen to your favorite song, listen to a calming playlist, play white noise, take note of any nature sounds around you
- Touch: Wear comfortable pajamas, wear slippers, snuggle with your pet, hug someone you love, put on soothing lotion, engage in a skincare routine, take a warm bath or shower
- Taste: Try a new dessert, order takeout, eat a healthy snack, practice mindfulness with taste, try a new food
How To Observe Birth Trauma Awareness Week
Whether you’ve experienced a birth trauma or not, you might choose to recognize this day with your family or community in an effort to find healing and/or inform others on the topic. Birth Trauma Awareness Week is primarily honored in Australia and the UK, and the Australian branch hosts a yearly walk for support that you can join if you live nearby.
If you live in the US or elsewhere, you might consider setting up an event in your own community. A walk for those who have experienced birth trauma or a volunteer campaign to raise awareness could be helpful. You can also consider fundraising for organizations that support quality, equitable healthcare for all and awareness of and support for those who have experienced birth-related trauma.
Experiencing birth-related trauma can feel isolating, and managing it without support can be difficult and even detrimental to your mental health. As mentioned, connecting with others who have had similar experiences through a support group or similar may be beneficial. You might also consider seeking the help of a licensed therapist.
As a new parent, it can be difficult to find the time to commute to and from in-person therapy appointments. Pain and body changes may also make it challenging to leave home at first. In cases like these, online therapy can represent a more convenient and accessible option. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed mental health professional who you can connect with via phone, video, and/or in-app messaging to address the challenges you may be facing. Research suggests that online therapy can significantly reduce the severity of PTSD as well as symptoms of anxiety and depression. It can also provide a safe, nonjudgmental space where you can feel heard and validated in what you’ve been through.
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