A Positive Birth Experience After a Traumatic Birth

WHEN BIRTH DOESN’T TO GO PLAN
 
For many women giving birth can be an amazing and positive experience but for some it can be frightening and overwhelming.  It is estimated around a third of women describe their birth as traumatic and of those some will end up with PTSD. Each year in the UK around 200,000 women suffer birth trauma  (another term for PTSD after childbirth).
 
In many cases what makes birth traumatic is the fear that you or your baby are going to die, but even if labour is long and hard, not going as hoped or expected, or feeling poorly-treated by medical staff could be the cause.  Symptoms of birth trauma could include nightmares, invasive memories, aversion to thinking about the birth, being over-vigilant, anxious, irritable, feeling down and unhappy and also guilt and inadequacy.  
WHAT YOU CAN DO
 
It is really important to make sure you process what you have been through, to talk about it with a support group or have counseling if necessary and learn as much as possible about what happened by asking to see your notes.  Give yourself time to get to know your baby.  Their entry into the world was not ideal so give them lots of skin on skin time and wearing them in a sling can also helpful to build that bond.  Breastfeeding can sometimes more difficult following a traumatic birth so make sure you get all the help you need.  Also remember that birth partners may also feel traumatised so talk about your experience with them and consider getting help together as a couple if necessary.
 
 
To give birth again after a traumatic birth can be very daunting, many women feel a real aversion to even getting pregnant again and once they do will have a strong desire to do things differently.  Many women will be drawn to pregnancy yoga, hypnobirthing and even homebirth after a traumatic birth as a way of learning new techniques to help them cope and create a different birthing experience this time around. As a pregnancy yoga and hypnobirthing teacher I have seen many times how women are able to overcome previous trauma to have a very positive second or subsequent birth.  For other women choosing to have a planned caesarean birth second time around is the right option for them.
MY POSITIVE BIRTH STORY AFTER A TRAUMATIC ONE 
 
 My own experience was that I was able to have an amazing and positive birthing experience with my second child after a traumatic first birth.  For me giving birth to my second baby was an incredibly healing and empowering experience. It was as if all the trauma and negative emotion that I was still holding onto was released out of me along with my baby.  From having not been able to speak about my son’s birth without getting upset and emotional, all of a sudden all of that negative emotion was simply not there any more. I wanted to share my positive birth experience here as it might be helpful to some women…..
 
 
DIFFICULT FIRST BIRTH
 
The birth of my first baby was a very long, drawn out and medicalised experience.  It wasn’t at all what I had envisioned or planned for and when it didn’t turn out how I had hoped and expected I felt really let down and for a long time felt that I had failed and my body had failed me. At the time I was a relatively new pregnancy yoga teacher and I think without realising it put a lot of pressure on myself about how my birth should be.  I knew all the theory about how to breathe and move but somehow I just wasn’t able to make it translate into the positive experience that I believed birth could and should be.  
 
The experience was traumatic for both of us and initially my son Jai was very unsettled as a baby, he cried all the time and couldn’t be put down.  By the time he was 4 ½ months he had learnt to trust the world and was a happy smiley, outgoing baby and toddler so clearly didn’t suffer any lasting effects,  but the birth followed by those first few months were really tough and did take a lasting toll on me.
 
 
  At the time I didn’t realise it but looking back it is clear that I had postnatal depression and I couldn’t shake the feeling of trauma left over from his birth.  This did gradually lift by the time he was one years old but right up until the month before I got pregnant with my 2nd baby I would shudder at the thought of getting pregnant again.  I was left wondering just how different things could have been both for me and my son for those first few months if his birth had been a gentler and more positive experience. 
SECOND TIME AROUND
 
When I became pregnant with my second baby it felt so important to me that I wanted to have a different experience for both me and my baby. I really believed that at home I would be in the environment where I would feel most comfortable and relaxed and would therefore stand the best chance of having the calm, gentle and positive birth I had so wanted the first time around.

I was living in London at the time and one of the great things about being on the home birth team was that my midwife came to visit me at home for all of my antenatal appointments so I didn't need to drag my toddler up to the hospital each month.  I had the same midwife throughout my pregnancy so felt really supported and the yoga and breathing exercises that I practiced throughout helped me by the end of my pregnancy to feel calm and ready to embrace whatever lay ahead.
LABOUR BEGINS
I went into labour a couple of days before my due date.  That morning I had woken up feeling a little uncomfortable, the baby felt as if it had moved and my initial reaction was fear that it was now posterior and I would have another very long and painful back labour.  After I had dropped my son at nursery I came home and did as dynamic a yoga practice as a heavily pregnant woman can, doing all the movements I could possibly think of to shift the baby.  It seemed to have the desired effect and perhaps a little more as about an hour later, once home from collecting my son just as we settling down to play with his trainset I felt a tiny rumble, a bit like a very mild period pain.  Over the next hour I had a few more and by the time my husband got home at I was able to meet him at the door and tell him with excited anticipation that our baby was on its way.  As my first labour had been so long I had always planned to ignore this labour as long as I possibly could so while my husband got on with putting the birth pool up in our bedroom I carried on with preparing dinner just pausing to lean over the kitchen table to breathe through the contractions which were becoming increasingly intense but then just carrying on as before.

 
TRYING TO ACT NORMAL

By bath time things were starting to get quite intense, my son who normally loved his bath was definitely picking up that something was going on as he was having a tantrum and refusing to get in.  I would feel a contraction coming on, go out of the bathroom into the hall and then come back in when it was finished to try deal with my son.  At this point I realised enough was enough and I handed over to my husband and took myself off into our bedroom so I could be in my own space.  At this point in between contractions I called my doula to let her know she should head over.  I tried to lie down and relax but I found that I just needed to move so I then spent the next hour or so on my bed alternating between being on all fours circling my hips during the contractions and leaning forward with my forehead on my birthing ball to rest between contractions. 
 
 One of the most beneficial things that a yogic approach to birth has to offer is the ability to really tune into the breath and deeply relax between contractions as a way of conserving and restoring energy and preventing stress hormones from being released, which can slow down labour.  At some point Natalie my doula arrived and she and my husband were in and out but I was barely aware of them. I was just so focused on my breathing that I was in another world, almost a trance and I just kept hearing the words of my own pregnancy yoga teacher going around in my head   "the exhale is the antidote to pain".

Due to my fears after previously having a very long labour and lots of intervention we had agreed to wait until I was quite far along before calling the midwives as a way of keeping me as relaxed as possible.  My doula has since told me that at no point were my contractions regular and as my breathing was keeping me so calm I had the appearance of a woman who was still hours away from giving birth. This is a common occurrence with women who are practicing hypnobirthing  or a yogic approach to birth and your midwives may not realise you are far into labour as you actually are so make sure they understand what you are doing. 
WORRYING THAT IT WOULD BE THE SAME AS LAST TIME

Labour was beginning to feel pretty full on and I realised I felt very tired so I lay down onto my side for a while.  This made the contractions feel so much more intense and I began to feel the pain shifting into my lower back. This made me feel quite despondent as it brought back memories of my first labour.  In my head I began to feel that I couldn't cope and that we needed to call the midwives  as I thought I had hours left to go and just couldn't do it.  At this time my waters broke.  Looking back with a rational mind I was clearly going through transition but at the time as I was so in the zone and connected with my breath, this all went on in my head and I didn't vocalise it.
THE BIRTH OF MY DAUGHTER

From somewhere deep within I suddenly got a strong urge to get up back to all fours and not to give up. At that point all of a sudden a very powerful surge moved through my body which finally caused me to yell out 'get the midwives' at the same time as I felt my body spontaneously roar opened and expell my baby.  I didn't have to push at all, my beautiful daughter just came out and I caught her and brought her straight up to my chest.  She let out a cry, Jeff and Natalie my doula wrapped her in blankets and she nestled down against me.  Her first few minutes were so calm and peaceful although I think I was in shock as I had no idea that she was imminently about to come until one minute before she did.  I really thought I still had hours to go and had I known I would have loved to have made use of the birth pool which was right next to me and of course would have wanted the midwives there.  From reading about my experiences what I know now is that I experienced a spontaneous foetal ejection which is caused by surge of adrenaline which wakes a woman out of her labour trance, which is what motivated me to get up off my side and not give up.  This only happens when the mother is left alone, feels safe and secure and has experienced a completely undisturbed labour.  This is how animals give birth!
TOO LATE!

The midwives arrived about 10 minutes after she was born and understandably they were not too pleased to be arriving in those circumstances but thankfully India my daughter arrived healthily and safely. Giving birth without a midwife present is certainly not something I recommend but this goes to show just how well  the process of labour can unfold uninhibited using the body’s inner wisdom when the woman feels calm and safe. I know I can never know for sure but my daughter was a very different baby to my son, right from day one she was calm, content and happy to lie on her own and changing her nappy was a complete revelation.  I know more relaxed second time mothers are more likely to have calmer babies but I can't help believing that her gentle birth was a significant factor in that.
 
For years afterwards I wasn’t able to speak about Jai’s birth without becoming emotional but the amazing and positive experience I had birthing my daughter two and a half years later changed everything.  It was as if  I released all the fear, trauma and old wounds as I birthed her and immediately afterwards all the  emotional charge around my son’s birth just wasn’t there any more.  Giving birth to my daughter really was a truly empowering, positive and healing experience and I know first hand that it really is possible to have a positive birth after a traumatic one.
 
The experiences of both my births have greatly informed me as a teacher.  It is often assumed that a vaginal birth is usually positive and a cesarean birth will be negative, but this is not necessarily the case.  Some births seem really bad to outside observers, and yet mothers feel positive about them. Other mothers have births that appear perfect on paper, yet they are deeply troubled.  What can really make the difference is being able to be in an internalized and focused state of mind.  If a woman is able to stay calm and connected to her breath and access a hypnotic trans-like state of mind using hypnobirthing or yogic techniques her experience of birth, whatever the outcome can be positive. Even if birth does not turn out as she would have planned, or has sudden unexpected turns of events if she is in the zone she will not be panicking or feeling fear so when she looks back on the birth she will not perceive it is being traumatic.  Whatever the outcome breathing, yoga and hypnobirthing techniques can help birth be a more positive experience, and the fact that a woman is calm will make it much more likely that she does end up having a straightforward, vaginal delivery. 
About the author….
 
Jennie Phenix is a yoga teacher, yoga therapist, mum of 2 and has been specialising in pregnancy and postnatal yoga and hypnobirthing since 2005.  She teaches regular weekly classes and workshops in South Bucks, UK.
 
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