Whanau & friends
As the whanau member or friend of someone who has had a negative or traumatic birth experience there's much you can do to support them. This page is created to provide greater understanding around what birth trauma means and how it can impact parents, their families and even our wider communities.
Thank you for taking the time to look over this information and for deepening your understanding about what the impact of a negative or traumatic birth experience can be for mothers and family members. By gathering this insight you will no doubt be able to better support those who have had a difficult time during birth.
As mentioned on our What Is It? page, birth trauma means different things to different people and it occurs due to many different situations during birth or shortly afterwards. Birth is such a special and momentous time in people's lives - one where they are likely to be their most open and also their most vulnerable.
When things don't go right, it can leave people feeling very sacred, lonely, disappointed and angry. It can also impact their early, or even long-term, parenting and day-to-day experiences.
It is far healthier to have these feelings validated and supported instead of pushed down and silenced. Acknowledging and processing feelings can lead to healing.
It is important to note that the impact of negative or traumatic birth experiences is not limited to mothers - fathers, partners or other support people at the birth can equally experience birth trauma. There are many ways people can be supported following such an experience, but there are also other ways that are not so helpful – even when this kind of support is offered with the best intentions.
Below are some suggestions about what you can do to help, as well as what it can pay to avoid. When reading, remember that these are just suggestions - your best source of advice and understanding is the new parents. Ask them what they need, how they are feeling and how you can help. Then, listen.
Please note: This information isn't here to make you feel bad, but instead to shed some light on what mums and others want you to know.
What people need
People who have had a negative or traumatic birth experience most often need to feel heard, validated and reassured that their response and feelings to the situation are normal.
Try to avoid
If you can, try to avoid placing your own ideas around birth - how it should or shouldn't go, how someone should or shouldn't respond - on to this situation.
It takes courage to share a traumatic experience, so if someone has shared their experience with you they are asking you for support.
If you're unsure about what trauma is, or what it does to our psyche, please visit our Insights page.
Try avoid the below examples and instead approach the situation using the suggestions at the bottom of the page.
"just be grateful"
Those who have had a negative or traumatic birth experience are likely to be hugely grateful that they are OK, that they had advanced medical services available or that they even got pregnant at all.
However this does not mean that they need to be grateful for the whole experience. They can be grateful for any number of things - for example, a healthy baby or being alive at the end of it - but that does not mean they need to be grateful for what may have been a terrifying or life-threatening experience.
One can feel both gratitude and it's opposite at the same time. Saying that someone just needs to be grateful diminishes and invalidates their feelings.
"AT LEAST YOU CAN GET PREGNANT" or "AT LEAST YOU DIDN'T BIRTH IN SOME 3rd WORLD COUNTRY"
Similar to "just be grateful", hearing "at least ..." can leave the person feeling invalidated or unsupported.
A person who has had an experience such as this doesn't need to be reminded that they have access to medical services or that they are lucky to be able to get pregnant - they likely know this already, and are grateful for it. In fact, they're likely to be extremely empathetic towards those who struggle to get pregnant or who lack access to adequate maternity care.
Again, their feelings of fear, anger, sadness, etc., around their birth experience are valid.
If you feel yourself saying "at least ...", check what you are going to say and if it will truly help the person process their experience and heal. When an experience such as this is fresh in someone's mind, they may not be ready to think of the "at least's". Instead, focusing on "at least's" can mean that they cover up their feelings and don't process or heal them because they feel they "should" just be grateful for the "at least's". This is neither helpful or healthy.
"every BIRTH IS HARD, WHY SHOULD YOURS BE DIFFERENT"
Yes, birth often is hard but just because it's hard doesn't mean it has to be negative or traumatic.
With the right support people can accomplish incredibly difficult feats; without support hard situations can easily become threatening.
Also, some birth's are beyond hard - they are life-threatening to Mum or the baby. These experiences can cause trauma in Mum, or her support people. See the Insights piece for more information on how trauma works.
Saying "birth is hard" minimises the situation when what the person needs is validation and understanding.
"at least you and baby are fine" or "it all turned out OK in the end"
Similar to the above, someone who has had a traumatic birth is likely to be incredibly relieved that they and their baby are OK.
Sometimes birth trauma arises because mum or baby were NOT OK, or still aren't OK. It's important to acknowledge the feelings and experiences of those involved in the birth.
We need to understand that the Mother's emotional and spiritual well-being, is just as important as her physical health. The same goes for others who may have been at the birth - fathers, partners or other support people need their experience validated also.
Saying that "at least baby is OK" can suggest that the physical health of Mum or baby is more important than their mental health and can again diminish or invalidate them.
Mothers, and their support people, know that it is hugely important that they or baby is fine, and they will no doubt be greatly relieved that they are. The negativity they feel around the birth, however, can increase or decrease depending upon how much they feel their experience matters too.
"JUST GET OVER IT" OR "JUST LET IT GO" OR "THERE'S NO POINT DWELLING ON IT"
Those who have had a negative or traumatic birth experience are likely to want to just get over it - they'd love for it to be that simple!
Take a look at the Insights page to learn what happens in our brain when we experience trauma and why just "getting over it" isn't always simple.
Feeling like one should just "get over it" or just "let it go" can often lead to further guilt, shame and anxiety. The person who experienced the event is allowed to feel what they feel and they are entitled to support in processing and healing the experience.
No doubt, with the right support, many women, and their support people, will indeed be able to let the experience go - this, however, needs to happen at their own pace, when they are ready.
What we can do, to facilitate this process, is support and validate them.
ASK THEM WHAT THEY NEED
Your best source of knowledge, around what you can do to help someone who's had a negative or traumatic birth experience is the person themselves.
Negative and traumatic birth experiences vary hugely and they impact people in many different ways - ask someone what they need and respond honestly if you can give them that or not. If you can't give them what they need right now, help them find someone who can.
Take a look at the External Resources page for suggestions of groups or organisations that can help.
Please also be aware, however, that Mum, or her support people, may not know what they need right now. If this is the case tell them that there's no rush and they can let you know how you can help them when they're ready.
Lastly, if you've offered to help, please follow through. Sometimes the hardest thing is to seek help, so helping someone through this part of the process can be most valuable.
Listen attentively. Often people just want to have their story heard. In fact, it can be very relieving for mothers, and their support people, to tell their story. They will need to do this when they are ready so try not to push them in to sharing detail - it may be too upsetting to share right away.
If you ask and they say they are not ready to talk about it, or that they are just "fine", give them a little time and ask again.
When they are ready, however, listen without judgement and without trying to "solve the problem". Just listen.
Some helpful phrases to use while listening are:
- "That sounds really hard/tricky/full-on/scary/awful"
- "I can understand how tough that would have been"
- "I hear you"
- "It's totally OK to feel scared/angry/sad ..."
- "How did you feel when that happened?"
- "Can I do anything for you?"
- "It's no problem if you're not ready to talk now but I am here to listen when you are ready"
- "I can't change that situation, but, if you want, I can help you now"
While we can never understand what the experience of another was like, we can try to imagine how it must have been.
Let your empathy guide you on how to support them. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine how it might have been.
Below is an excellent clip explaining empathy (Clip by Brene Brown, 2013).