Recently, I chatted with a mum who was concerned about her young son’s frequent dysregulation.*
The mum, like many parents currently, was going through the process of gaining a diagnosis of ADHD and autism for her son, in order to obtain support for him in the classroom. Without a diagnosis, schools can’t access the support which some children need.
I spent some time chatting with the mum and asked about her son’s birth. She told me that he had a difficult birth, resulting in the need for several operations on his hips in order for him to be able to walk later in life. These operations finished when he was three. The child was, at this time, eight. His 'challenging behaviour’ manifested in extreme reaction to metallic noises, phobia of lifts, phobia of sirens or alarms and inability to connect with strangers. When I suggested that these behaviours seemed perfectly logical given his birth history and that, in my opinion, he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, she began to cry and told me that I was the first professional to have ever asked about her son’s birth experiences.
The trauma of a difficult birth is often seen from the mother's perspective, and until recently, it was believed that children would not remember what happened to them during birth. Research now proves that babies begin to learn and experience whilst still in the womb.
As the name suggests, birth trauma results from a traumatic birth experience and can have short and long-term impacts on the baby, mother and anyone else who is a part of the birth, including the other parent.
Whilst a traumatic birth can mean a birth where either the mother or child’s life was in danger, it can also result from the mother feeling physically, or emotionally unsafe, at any point in the labour or delivery process.
People who have experienced a traumatic birth can have symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) including:
After a traumatic birth, a mother may need medical interventions like surgery or recovery time due to birth injuries. This, along with PTSD symptoms, may make it more difficult for a mother who has experienced birth trauma to bond with her new baby.
For some women, they may encounter difficulties bonding with their baby, because they see them as a constant reminder of the trauma they have experienced.
Causes of birth trauma could include a long and painful labour, poor pain relief, feelings of loss of control or manipulation, a high level of medical intervention, an emergency C-section, feeling inadequately looked after by health professionals or any concerns about the safety of you or the baby.
Although babies can’t tell us about the trauma they experience, we know that traumatic experiences make an imprint on them right from birth, and even before! The birth experience is a monumental biological process where the baby leaves the safety and protection of the womb to be thrust into the world. They are physically separated from their home and are forced to breathe as an independent being for the first time. Anything that interrupts this already stressful process can be overwhelming to a newborn.
We are learning that trauma from childbirth is not only stored as subconscious memories within newborns, it also impacts their life at a critical time in their development, affecting their entire neurological system, from their learning capacity to mental orientation, emotional stability and stress management.
The nervous system creates a strong memory of a fight or flight response from a traumatic birth. Additionally, high levels of adrenaline produced by the mother during a traumatic birth can cause distress to newborns, as can being prevented from bonding immediately with the mother after birth due to medical interventions.
These imprints on the baby’s nervous system after a traumatic birth are beginning to be linked to neurodevelopmental disorders. A staggering 80% of children with sensory processing disorder, ADHD, developmental delays and autism have a history of birth trauma.
There is some thought that the experiences of a traumatic birth may embed itself in our subconscious and influence our behaviour and perspectives throughout our adult life if not addressed.
You can’t change your experience, but you can change its long-term impact with the right interventions. As the author Graham Kennedy says in his book about birth trauma, A Baby’s View;
“The effects of early trauma do not have to be a life sentence. With appropriate therapeutic support, they can be fully healed. Nor is there an age limit beyond which these early traumas can be treated.”
If you, or your child, are suffering from symptoms of trauma that are affecting your daily life and well-being, it’s important to seek the right help. Talk to your NHS health visitor who should be able to refer you for post-natal mental health support. There are also plenty of resources to help. It may help to connect with other parents who have been through similar experiences. It may be that you need counselling to help you process your experiences.
Learn to recognise and manage the child’s signs of stress and understand cues for what is going on for them. They may be triggered by certain places, noises or experiences that could cause ‘meltdowns’. This could be related to birth trauma, so it’s important to remember this and adapt, rather than just assuming that they are being ‘naughty’ or challenging.
Heightening your levels of stress by becoming reactive to your child’s trauma response is not going to help you or the baby. As challenging as it is, take deep breaths and try to be patient for both of you. You have both been through a difficult time and both need time to adjust to this new dynamic.
After experiencing trauma, some mothers may find it more difficult to bond with their baby. Carving out dedicated bonding time in a safe, calm environment, without putting pressure on yourself, is an important part of the process. Avoiding any unnecessary separations from important caregivers in the initial months of a baby’s life can prevent further trauma.
There is a lot of research to suggest skin-to-skin contact, especially with newborns, is not only helpful for bonding but also to regulate their biological processes and help them adjust to the world.
Whilst this can be a difficult ask in the newborn months, it’s essential for new mothers to look after themselves, especially if they’ve experienced birth trauma. This can mean eating nutritious food, getting sleep where you can and doing light exercise like going for walks. Birth is one of the hardest things your body will ever have to go through and it’s important that you try to give yourself time to recover both mentally and physically.
Do you have an experience of a traumatic birth? What impact did it have on you and your child?
*I use the word ‘dysregulation’ instead of ‘challenging behaviour’ because it is scientifically more factual. When we are emotionally flooded our central nervous system is ‘dysregulated’ so we struggle to hear, see, think and speak. It can take up to 45 mins for our systems to regulate. Children need hundreds of instances of being supported to return to a regulated state before they can learn to do this effectively themselves. Those who don’t have this support will struggle as adults.