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Healing From a Traumatic Birth

QUESTION: My baby was born two weeks ago and the experience was very scary. My baby's heartbeat stopped when the cord prolapsed and wrapped around his neck. He was very blue and the doctor and nurses just kept saying, "You have to push him out NOW ... his heart has stopped." I felt so out of control and now the doctors and nurses are dismissing the incident and acting as if it didn't even happen. I can't seem to get this horrible experience out of my mind. How can I deal with these feelings?

ANSWER: You are experiencing "flashbacks," which could be a result of post traumatic stress caused by your traumatic childbirth. The dismissal of this event only makes matters worse. It is important that you have the opportunity to process these feelings as soon as possible. Doing so now will make any future pregnancies less stressful.

Consider talking with a counselor who specializes in postpartum adjustment. You may also benefit from talking with sympathetic friends, who listen to your story, rather than try to negate it. Chapter four in my book, "An Easier Childbirth" discusses exercises to transform past trauma in childbirth. Below is an adaptation of these steps, which you may also consider in healing from the trauma of this event.

Retrieving the positive

Start by writing down (or speaking with someone) about the ways your body did a good job. You pushed your baby out when you needed to do so and your body cooperated on a deep biological level for your baby to be born alive! Your body and your baby cooperated with your birthing team, to triumph over danger. See if you can look at your past experience from the perspective.

Reframe your experience, highlighting the aspects of your past childbirth that can aid you in any future birth experiences. In this case, acknowledging the power of your love to push your baby out even with all the difficulties present, was a tremendously scary, but very powerful act!

Self-acceptance visualization

Self-acceptance is the cure for feelings of self-blame or other people's denial or rejection, which are so often a part of a frightening childbirth experience. Reconnecting with your past "self" can help. You will find new energy available as this lost part of yourself finds it way home.

A friend or your partner can read the following exercise to you, while you close your eyes and visualize. You may also choose to read it into a tape recorder and play it back to yourself. You may choose to read it through once, then slowly again as you take time to visualize between sentences.

  • Take a few minutes to recall the past childbirth. Remember the surroundings and sounds, the birthing team telling you to push (knowing now full well that she would be fine).
  • Imagine that you can take an older and wiser you back to the side of your younger self in labor. Visualize the older and wiser you being there to comfort your younger self in your last labor. Imagine you can hold her with all the love and compassion you have ever given to anyone else. Give it to the younger you, who at that time, unlike now, did not know things would be all right. Speak directly to the younger self now, telling her it will be fine, her baby will be alive and well and in her arms soon! Tell her anything that she needed to hear back then, while she pushed so hard with all of her strength and love.

    See the younger "self" absorb the knowledge or whatever else she needed then, and watch her change in some subtle, but important way. See her absorb what she needs in order to heal, to feel whole now.

  • With compassion, hold the younger you. Comfort her. Then bring her back with you, slowly, lovingly, through time. After you have a sense of feeling whole, then bring yourself back to the room and to your present surroundings. Take your time to come back to your environment.

    When feelings of being frightened, or overwhelmed by your past experience persist, or they stop you from doing this exercise, seek help from a qualified postpartum psychotherapist to help you review and heal from this past childbirth. Dealing with these feelings now, will allow you to relax if you have another child.

Childbirth as opportunity for learning

Giving birth opens us to ourselves, our own resources, as well as to new life. Maturity comes as we deal with difficulties on life's path. Our personalities become more defined as we grow and develop throughout life. Always, birth provides us with an opportunity for learning.

Even in very difficult circumstances, we often have more choices than we could have imagined. Ask yourself you learned about yourself from your childbirth experience that opened you to yourself, or life in a deeper way. Is there anything that is changing for you now as you learn about yourself, as a new mother? For example: Are you stronger than you thought, or more capable than you imagined? Write down any new insights that come to mind, any thoughts, feelings or reflections on your childbirth experience and what it has taught you about yourself and your resources to handle life's adversities.

Visualize a positive birth

Imagine as fully as you can what it would have felt like to have your baby come down and through your vagina, with a strong heartbeat. You are pushing, your baby begins to crown, you can feel a burning sensation as you pant and begin to stretch around your baby's head. Here comes your baby, right out of your vagina, born healthy and it rests quietly in your arms.

Give yourself the right to see this.like an alternate movie in your mind. Imagining it can help you heal some of what might have been hurting, but more importantly can give you a sense of the normal process. Your body registers the sensation of what you imagine deeply. It creates a memory tracing of your visualization. In this way you are communicating to your body's consciousness your desire to learn how to adjust and adapt to your next labor, (should you want further children) which will likely be very different.

Integrating the power of this experience will help ease your anxiety around future childbirth. Still, do not be alarmed when your child's first birthday and a future pregnancy bring the experience up again for review. It will be important to process it as it arises each time. By doing so, you continue to integrate and heal.

Never forget, that it is under pressure that coal transforms into Diamonds. Life's difficulties, too, can bring us jewels with time and focus. Take your birthing experience seriously. Give yourself the opportunity to integrate the powerful feelings that are the very nature of giving birth. Although the need for women to integrate these feelings is unrecognized, you do not need to undervalue your own experience and the power it holds for you. You will not only regain a part of yourself, by attending to your feelings about the birth, but likely benefit from the depth your life experience offers. Healing from the trauma, will allow you to retrieve the wonder of birth.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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