Having a Baby after Traumatic Birth

Suzanne Swanson, PhD, LP, Board Member, PATTCh

You’re pregnant again. You’re excited to meet your baby and—if you’ve already had a difficult birth—you may be nervous about labor and birth. Or you want another child, but the memories of an earlier traumatic birth are so acute and painful that you sometimes think you can’t bear to get pregnant and give birth again.

You’re not alone. Eighteen percent of women in the 2008 New Mothers Speak Out survey experienced some of the characteristics of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD): flashbacks of the birth, nightmares, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, anxiety or panic, anger or irritability, numbness or avoidance. Nine percent of the mothers surveyed met all the criteria for PTSD. (Childbirth Connection, 2008)

Still, what matters is how you define your birth experience. Your labor lasted days, or maybe it was quick and excruciating. You feared for your baby’s safety, or your own. You felt unheard and disrespected. You have a history of sexual assault, or not. You had your baby vaginally or by emergency Cesarean. No matter what the external circumstances of the birth, you might be left feeling inadequate or unsafe, physically or emotionally.

How on earth to prepare to give birth again?  Look for resources that will help you

  • Find company and support
  • Build awareness:  Look backward and forward
  • Educate yourselves with evidence
  • Connect with your partner

Alone, with a partner, with a local or online community, with providers, you can learn to

  • Claim the strengths you brought to your earlier birth
  • Commit yourself to recognizing and addressing without judgmentany core beliefs you may carry —  “I have to be perfect”  “I need to please” “I’m not good enough” are only a few —  that can have an impact on your birth.
  • Calm yourself (using breathing, mindfulness, self-hypnosis, prayer —  among many ways) when fears or flashbacks flare
  • Cultivate the ability to identify what you want, ask for it, even insist on it in a respectful and direct way.
  • Create collaboration:  find practitioners —  doula (yes, get a doula!); midwife or doctor — who will
    • work with you to acknowledge and name the experience of your earlier birth instead of minimizing it
    • encourage you to make decisions
    • respectfully offer their own evidence-based expertise

Include your partner.  So many partners feel like they blew it when birth turns traumatic:  “I was lost. I didn’t know what to do.”  “She needed me and I let her down.” The two of you need to be able to feel as though you’re in it together when labor starts this time.

  • Consult:  Meeting with a specialized psychotherapist or bodyworker allows you to focus on beliefs, emotions, sensations and/or past experiences that may influence your upcoming birth. Choose a therapist who is familiar with evidence-based birth practices.
  • Attend a class or meeting
    • If you can, find an ICAN (International Cesarean Awareness Network) chapter near you for local support and resources
    • Another Birth, Another Story classes for pregnant couples are designed to be led by a doula or childbirth educator and a mental health professional).  Created and offered (currently in Minnesota) by Susan Lane, CD, LCCE, CLC and Suzanne Swanson, PhD, LP .  Curriculum and training opportunities will be available soon. (salane@visi.com)
    • Other local classes:  for instance, in Minneapolis, Healing Birth Stories Workshops offered by Maureen Campion, MS, LP and Sarina LaMarche, Life and Wellness Coach. (marriagegeek.com)
    • Find community online.  Giving Birth With Confidence (see menu) and ICAN (ican-online.org icantwincities.org) offer a wealth of information about VBAC.  Solace for Mothers (solaceformothers.org) offers two online communities—one for women who have personally experienced a traumatic birth and one for families, caregivers and advocates.   Start with these:  they can link you to others.

Use the resources that suit you. Every day women are having satisfying births after a traumatic birth. Explore your options to find a pathway to reclaim your body, your confidence and your birthing power.


Suzanne Swanson, PhD, LP is a psychotherapist who has been working with pregnancy, labor, postpartum, loss and mothering for over 30 years, and also Founding Director of Pregnancy and Postpartum Support Minnesota and a Minnesota Coordinator for Postpartum Support International. She is the author of What Other Worlds: Postpartum Poems.