Birth Trauma is a topic that has been weighing on my mind quite heavily the last couple of days. There have been ongoing protests outside BC Women’s Hospital in the last few months, and more are planned for different locations and hospitals around the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley. The protests certainly caught my attention with this video on you tube Birth Rally at BC Women’s Hospital.
I know Birth Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of a birth experience exists, but this was the first time I was seeing people openly speaking out with terms like “Obstetric Violence” and actually naming the doctors who imposed unnecessary medical procedures on women without their consent. Seeing the signs just gives a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg. It’s hard to understand exactly what they mean until you take a closer look at what happened, why and how it causes the actual experience of Trauma. Then after that, the important question of, “What do you want to do about it?” needs to be asked.
One of the organisers of the events, Kalina Christoff, has also provided a detailed explanation of what exactly happened that caused her distress, what she did after to start a dialogue with hospital staff, and why she eventually felt like holding rallies was the only way left to create change for other women. You can read her story here : Vancouver Birth Tauma.
Untangling the mess
The term ‘Birth Trauma’ can refer to two things – physical damage to babies during birth; and the psychological damage to mothers during birth. Of course, there is also psychological damage to babies that can happen during birth but since that is harder to study, research in the area is relatively new and scarce. The content of this article will be about birth trauma to mothers. (I believe that mother-baby are not separate and what causes stress and harm to mothers, causes that to babies as well. And when mothers are treated well, babies are treated well. You can’t stress the mom out and say you’re doing it to take care of the baby. The mom’s stress will stress the baby out too.)
The general public has a perception of what Birth Trauma means. They usually assume birth is pretty painful and can be so unbearable that it can be traumatizing. So an epidural seems like a pretty good solution. Or they may think that women may feel traumatized only when their babies are injured or die during the birth process. While these events may happen, there is a much more multi-layered dynamic.
First of all it helps to understand the process of Labour and Birth as made up of two distinct processes –
1. The natural course of events that would take place if there was no human intervention, and
2. The human intervention that takes place, usually in the form of medical procedures, some minor and some major, both of which can alter the course of the natural process itself.
What Causes Trauma?
While the natural process may be painful and difficult, that in itself does not cause the experience of trauma unless there is some cause for strong anxiety or fear. The more common cause for feeling traumatised is feeling the loss of power over your own body and situation when people do things to it that are outside your control. That is the cause of all trauma – Feeling Powerless over your own situation.
In other areas of life, you can see how certain types of situations can cause people to feel traumatised. Eg. Bullying, for example, where the victim feels like they have no power to prevent the bullying, War is another situation where people can feel traumatised, both the civilians who have no control over the events in their lives, and the soldiers who have to obey orders and do things that may not necessarily choose themselves.
So how can trauma happen in a birth situation?
Firstly, during labour and birth, the moms are in a vulnerable state. They are dependent on the care providers for helping them and their babies safely through the process to varying degrees. They also have some level of trust that their care providers will take care of them appropriately. Physically, they are vulnerable because they are in pain, half-dressed and may be exhausted and not thinking straight.
While most of the time, care providers are motivated by moms and babies best well-being, the fact is that they are also human. Just because we, as a society are trained to believe that we should always trust doctors, doesn’t mean that every doctor will never abuse his/her power. They are human. It would be ridiculous to think that everything a doctor does is always for the safety of moms and babies in birth. It’s not unreasonable to realise that there are other factors that effect decisions doctors, nurses and midwives make in labour. For example, scheduling, time, other patients, being tired, not wanting to do extra work, differing payment amounts for various procedures, peer pressure, lacking in experience or knowledge about certain situations, and as Kalina experienced, needing to train student doctors, nurses and midwives.
This leads to a heck of a lot of medical procedures done that kinda, maybe needed to be done, but probably not. Things are done to speed things up, make extra money, train students, get it over with so they can go home, go to sleep or go on to the next patient. The thing is, nobody is going to come right out and say that. They say things like, “The baby could be in danger,” “The baby’s heart rate is not looking good,” “It’s best for you and your baby,” and so on. Most mothers and fathers would not have the background knowledge to know the difference between a real problem, and a fudged one. They might happily agree to any procedure thinking it was saving their baby’s life. That probably won’t lead to feeling traumatised unless the procedure directly or indirectly causes some unexpected damage or pain, and the mom realises later on that the procedure may not have been necessary.
Many times, the risks to procedures are not explained before they are done. This can eventually lead to women feeling like they have no control over their situation because they don’t know what could happen or what they are agreeing to. Agreeing to a membrane sweep, induction, forceps, c-section and many other things has unwanted risks, but women are not told about them before they are agree to it. Worse still, it is common for membrane sweeps to be done by some doctors at 38 or 39 weeks without even informing or asking the woman’s permission. Forceps of vacuum can be great if the baby’s life is clearly truly in danger, but in those iffy cases where maybe, sorta the baby may be starting to show signs of distress, are the risks of forceps greater than the risk of waiting and trying other methods? Forceps can hurt the baby as well as cause permanent damage to the moms pelvic floor resulting in incontinence. If the mom is saying no, and the doctor does it anyway, can you start to see why some women say the way they were treated in labour was a violation just like rape?
That’s what causes the feeling of trauma and powerlessness. That’s what causes post-traumatic stress disorder after birth and some cases of post-partum depression. It is estimated that 4% of women have post-traumatic stress disorder after birth. But birth is a funny thing in human experience –
1. It is one of the few things that only women do. Probably if men did it too, it would be handled a totally different way.
2. It is a private event behind closed doors so the birth is not in public awareness.
3. You may learn how to fix basic things in your car, how to do your own accounting, how buildings are made even though you are not a mechanic, accountant or engineer. But, even though every single person on earth is born, shockingly very few people learn any basic knowledge about birth. Most of what they know is from the media, which is saturated in complete misinformation. Because of this fact, the decision making power over decisions about your own body and baby in birth is often handed over to health care professionals. This is a huge amount of power.
4. Unlike war, which is associated with death, birth is associated with being a happy time with a new baby. It is extremely confusing for both moms and other people when the joy and love is totally mixed up with trauma and horror over the way they were treated.
So because birth is quite different than most things in human experience, the general public cannot even comprehend why some moms could have birth trauma. This is quite clear when you start to mention Homebirth. The most common response is, “Why would anyone want to give birth at home?” “To avoid the risk of having my decision making power over my own body and baby completely violated, duh! What else, would it be?”
I have seen births with complications where the medical staff was awesome, focused and committed to honoring the mother’s wishes within the realm of safety. For example, there was a baby who was having a little trouble breathing and they figured it would be better to take her to the nursery. It was important to the mom to have a few precious moments to see and touch her daughter before she was taken away. The hospital staff totally respected the mom’s request and understood how important it was. They took a lot of care to explain and comfort the parents about everything that was happening with their baby in the nursery so that the parents would not be overcome with worry. It was very touching.
In other situations, however, I have seen medical staff get annoyed with moms’ reasonable requests and feel that they are unimportant. The attitude is that it doesn’t matter how moms feel. They should just be grateful to have a live baby.
The thing is this, there was a study done which showed women’s experience of birth was influenced most by the way they were treated by the people around them, not so much the length of labour, the amount of pain or even the outcome of the birth. Women can have extremely long, painful labours, and feel really good about them if their care providers and support people treated them with respect and dignity. Women can go through miscarriage and stillbirth, and even though that may be very upsetting, can feel soothed by care providers who treat them in a caring way and involve parents in making decisions. Women may have a short, straightforward labour and a healthy baby but feel terribly about their birth experience if care providers were brusque, demeaning or disrespectful to the moms.
As I am writing this, an article is published int he New England Journal of Medicine. Court-Ordered Care – A Complication of Pregnancy to Avoid. It highlights cases where mothers are forced by courts and doctors to undergo medical procedures supposedly for the health of their fetus. Now for the people who can’t see the stupidity and violation of that, I don’t know what else to say. But I know one thing, there is no one in the world who cares more about the safety of her baby than the mother herself. Mothers are not stupid. They are completely able to make decisions about what’s best for their babies and would do whatever they felt was necessary. The doctor doesn’t always know what’s best.
If you or someone you know feels like they have birth trauma, please read Kalina’s page Recovery from Birth Tauma. If you would like to talk to someone, you can call me at 604 809 3288, or email kaurina @ prenataljourney.ca.
Kaurina Danu is a Birth Doula and Prenatal Class teacher is the Surrey / Langley area. She works to empower mothers who want to make informed decisions about their pregnancies, births and parenthood.