Are babies affected by birth trauma?
I went to an amazing conference in Huddersfield with a doula friend of mine last week. It was hosted by an organisation called Make Birth Better who’s aim is to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of birth trauma through clinically-led education, campaigning and research. The conference was called “Be The Change” and was a call to action for anyone involved in caring for women and others during the perinatal period to be trauma aware and implement small changes to recognise and reduce birth trauma and it’s impact. There were some fantastic speakers and inspiring workshops on the day and I left feeling really motivated to keep on raising awareness of birth trauma and it’s impact on birthing people, professionals and their babies.
My favourite part of the day was a workshop by Julianne Boutaleb from Motherhood In Mind, who is a leading Consultant Perinatal Psychologist specialising in perinatal trauma. Her focus was on birth trauma and infant mental health and how pregnancy and birth trauma can affect the baby - something which I have long suspected but dint't know much about.
She spoke about how mother and baby are physically and emotionally linked in pregnancy and after the birth, so it makes sense that anything which impacts on the mother could have an impact on the baby too.
According to Birth Trauma Association there are four main symptoms of birth trauma:
-Re-experiencing the traumatic event through flashbacks, nightmares or intrusive memories. These make you feel distressed and panicky.
-Avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma. This can mean refusing to walk past the hospital where you gave birth, or avoiding meeting other women with new babies.
-Feeling hypervigilant: this means that you are constantly alert, irritable and jumpy. You worry that something terrible is going to happen to your baby.
-Feeling low and unhappy (“negative cognition” in the medical jargon). You may feel guilty and blame yourself for your traumatic birth. You may have difficulty remembering parts of your birth experience.
Dr Boutaleb discussed trauma from the perspective of the baby and described some common symptoms including heightened startle reflex, difficult to soothe, oversensitivity to changes in routine, sleep and feeding difficulties, separation anxiety, hypervigilance or gaze avoidance. She also highlighted the affect of cortisol and adrenaline as a result of the stress response from the mother either via the placenta in pregnancy or during labour and birth or through her breast milk postnatally. This could leading to a nervous or jumpy infant as well as potential increase of reflux or colic due to the affects of cortisol on the immature gut. You can read more here.
She finished the workshop focusing on the support that both mum and baby need to begin to heal from a traumatic perinatal event. Firstly empathy and compassion - recognition of the trauma and that it is not the mothers fault. 30% of women describe their birth as traumatic, that's 30,000 women a year! Point out the things that are going well, she is a good mother doing the best that she can. For some women just having the opportunity to tell their story makes a huge difference in the recovery process. Listen if she wants to talk.
Offer practical help and support- settling baby whilst the mother takes a shower or has a nap, helping prepare some meals or do some household jobs whilst she feeds and cares for baby. Promote bonding between mum and baby - playing with her baby, baby massage, baby yoga, having skin to skin, wearing baby in a sling or baby carrier or having a warm bath with baby are activities which release oxytocin (the love hormone) and can be really beneficial, even with older babies..
Signpost to other organisations or professionals for ongoing support - recommend she speaks to her GP, Midwife, Health Visitor, local mental health service or those trained in supporting women with recovering from trauma. There are also organisations and charities set up to support parents who have experienced
It's really important that people become more trauma aware to remove the stigma around perinatal mental health. Compassion, recognition and knowing where to signpost parents really can make all the difference to the mother-baby relationship.