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How to Deal with Birth Trauma as a Partner

Medical complications can occur during labour and the birth can be really upsetting for both mum and dad. Whilst there may be difficulty at the time, there can be long term effects of a traumatic birth. Distress felt during and/or after childbirth is known as birth trauma.

What is birth trauma?

Birth trauma is the distress experienced by mothers during or after childbirth. It can manifest as a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where the mother experiences trauma symptoms in the long term. It can also be experienced by dads or the mother’s partner.

What are the risk factors for birth trauma?

Birth trauma often affects mothers who experience complications during childbirth, particularly for those who require higher levels of medical intervention or an emergency c-section. However, medical complications are not required for new parents to experience symptoms of this trauma. Birth trauma is also seen in those who do not receive an appropriate level of support, those with lack of information, or those with lack of privacy. Childbirth is a huge milestone and is considered to be one of the most painful experiences in a person’s life—without the right level of education and support, new parents can feel lost, frightened, and confused.

Tips for managing birth trauma as a partner

It is important to remember that even though they aren’t going through the physical labour process, dads or same-sex partners can also experience trauma linked to childbirth. Witnessing your partner who is giving birth in pain can be very upsetting and elicit feelings of guilt, helplessness, and anxiety. While partners have also shown to be distressed by the birth events, they tend to feel that their responses were unjustified. As a result, many partners tend to cope with the trauma through avoidance and do not seek help or are not offered help.

While partners are often the main point of support for the mother, they should also take action to manage their own trauma symptoms or difficult feelings in relation to a traumatic birth. Here are a few things that you as a partner can do:

1. Seek professional help. While you should encourage your partner to talk to a healthcare professional about their childbirth experience, it is important for you to also open up about how the experience affected your life too. More often than not, partners blame themselves for feeling hopeless as the mother goes through the painful process of childbirth. Talking through your experiences with a professional can help overcome your trauma and channel those feelings of guilt in better ways.

2. Reach out to trusted friends and family—the saying “it takes a village” does not only apply to childcare. While your partner might be the most comfortable with you to help them through this tough time, sometimes you may not have the mental strength to be the support that they need. Encourage your partner to open up to someone else that they trust, so you have time to work through your feelings as well. Be selective about who you share your birth story with. You may find it helpful to tell your friends and family members about what you have been through, or you may have a more private experience.

3. Notice thoughts and feelings without judgment. You may feel as though you are aren't allowed to be distressed and disoriented after your partner has been through a lot, but you can also help your partner by working on your own mental health. Talk to a trusted friend or even try writing down your own feelings.

4. Don’t feel bad if you didn't have a picture perfect birth experience. If your birth experience didn’t go according to your birth plan or how you and your partner had envisioned it, try to find the positives in the situation. If comparing your birth experience to others that did not have a complicated birth makes you feel bad, limit your exposure to these other experiences until you feel you have come to terms with your own birth experience.

5. Educate yourself. Read as much as you can about birth trauma, how it may affect you and your partner, as well as treatments. In addition to psychological therapies that you may be referred to by your GP, there are relaxation techniques that you and your partner can practice at home. For emergency help in the UK, contact Samaritans (0845 790 9090) or SANEline (0845 767 8000).

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