Why Women Are Speaking Out About Birth Trauma



In the months leading up to the birth of her son, Bahman, Dr Ishita Akhter had researched her options thoroughly. With a PhD in engineering from the University of Melbourne, she knew that knowledge and preparation produce better outcomes. But nothing could have prepared her for the shock of waking from an emergency caesarean to discover her newborn was nowhere to be seen. “I woke up and said, ‘Where’s my baby? Bring him to me, where is he?’ I kept asking for him, but I was told I couldn’t see him,” she says, from her home in Melbourne. “It was the worst experience of my life.”

In fact, it was several hours before Ishita, 35, was able to enjoy skin-to-skin contact with her baby, despite repeated requests to visit him. While friends of hers had been able to have their newborn next to them in the hospital cubicle, baby Bahman was kept in the nursery, even though Ishita says he didn’t need additional support. “I missed the golden hours with him and that still bothers me a lot,” she says. “I feel so bad about that.” Her distress was compounded by the urgency and shock of the caesarian, and her belief that her birth preferences were ignored by medical staff, resulting in a cascade of unwanted interventions during labour.

You never forget how you’re treated in birth, the saying goes. For many Australian women, it’s far from a happy memory. In fact, one in three women– or 100,000 women a year – are estimated to suffer birth trauma, a term used to describe physical, emotional or psychological distress resulting from a woman’s experience during labour or birth. A recent study by academics at Western Sydney University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery into obstetric violence – which is defined as disrespectful or abusive care by a healthcare professional – found one in 10 women felt “dehumanised, violated and powerless” during labour in Australia.

Why Women Are Speaking Out About Birth Trauma

“We talk about ending violence against women and ignore this huge number of women affected every year coming out of their births seriously traumatised.”

– Hannah Dahlen, Professor of midwifery at Western Sydney University

Birth-trauma feelings of shock, inadequacy, guilt and fear may persist long after a woman has given birth, and they can become more intense over time, says founder and executive editor of the Centre for Perinatal Excellence (COPE) Dr Nicole Highet. “Some parents describe feeling very emotional, alone or isolated and often find it difficult to bond with their babies.” Birth trauma can have significant implications for relationships, too, particularly if the partner has also been traumatised, Highet adds. “Experiencing trauma can, for example, create confusion, distance and distress between a couple, and they can unknowingly continue to trigger each other long after the event.”

After the traumatic birth of her first child, Levi, in 2015, Lauriann Higgins couldn’t imagine having another baby. “I feared falling pregnant again because the fear of birthing was horrendous,” says the now 38-year-old teacher. “I didn’t want to have sex [because] I was terrified I’d get pregnant, which affected my relationship with my husband. Gavin didn’t understand why.”

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Post #MeToo, more women are sharing their experiences publicly – and asking what can be done to deliver better births. Read more about birth trauma at PRIMER.


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