How to Heal from a Traumatic Birth & Bond with Your Baby

Bonding issues are so common but so rarely discussed in our society, there is such a stigma attached to a new mother who isn’t head over heels in love with her newborn. Commonly these feelings appear after a traumatic birth experience and it is with this in mind that I am writing this post. The following are a list of things that have helped some of the parents I have worked with, as well as myself – I have no scientific evidence to share here – only anecdote, but I hope it will help:

Talk, talk, talk……and then talk some more

Nobody wanted to listen to me, I was met with so many “but at least he’s here safely, that’s all that matters” – I felt so selfish wanting to yell “no – it’s not all that matters, what about me?”, so I never said it, but I’ve encouraged many to say the same to me. Birth matters. It is not “just one day in your life”, it will shape your personality forever more, if it goes well it can change your life, if it goes bad it can drag you down for months and even years. Find somebody you can talk to – preferably in person such as a birth afterthoughts counsellor, if not over the telephone rather than the internet, though if the internet is the only option go for it! at first it will hurt – a lot, you’ll cry, you’ll feel sad, you’ll feel angry, you may even feel worse for talking about it, but after a while  I promise it will get easier and will really begin to help. It’s also *really* important to talk to your partner about the birth, he may be harbouring feelings preventing him from bonding  too!

 

Write out your birth story

We tend to only write our birth stories if they are positive, but it’s so much more important to write out a negative one, you don’t have to show it to anyone, sometimes it can be hugely cathartic to write it out then tear it up  – even burn it.

 

Re-create your perfect birth (aka re-birthing)

I find this works really well for homebirth transfers and emergency C-Sections. For instance I once helped a couple who had planned a home waterbirth which resulted in an emergency section to create positive memories and enjoy the environment they so wanted. A week after the birth we set up the birthing room again, it was evening, dim light, we turned up the heating so it was snugly warm, got out the birth pool and filled it with warm water. We burned lavender and clary sage oil, we lit candles, we drank wine, we ate fruit, we played soft music. The mother entered the pool – closed her eyes and floated for a while whilst dad undressed the baby. The baby was then gently lowered on the mum’s tummy (head out of the water!) and then we sat back – quiet and a beautiful scene unfolded. The baby breastcrawled up and attached onto mum’s breast (hence why this is a technique often recommended for latching problems after C-Sections) and as she did the mum sobbed and sobbed and sobbed – a week’s worth of tears. They stayed there for an hour before retreating to bed together – skin to skin – for the night. It will never replace the birth she lost and so wanted but now she has good memories too.

 

Skin to skin

This one naturally goes without saying – or does it?

In my BabyCalm classes I always start off with asking the mums to undress their babies, hold them tight and close their eyes – then to feel every last inch of their baby, knowing them through their touch. I remember the most profound effect I witnessed – a mum with a four week old, her second child, who started crying within a minute of doing this. She had been so rushed with her toddler and putting the baby in a sling to get out and about, putting the baby down so the toddler didn’t get jealous and so on she hadn’t had time to get to know her newborn – even though she had a “perfect” homebirth. She said this was the first time she had really touched her. Co-bathing is a great time for skin to skin as is co-sleeping, but don’t just stop there, snuggle up on the sofa topless with a blanket with your baby stripped down to their nappy and cuddle. I think this is really important for bottle feeding mums, breastfeeding naturally affords skin to skin contact many times per day but I don’t know of any bottle feeding mum who undoes her shirt and snuggles her baby skin to skin whilst giving her a bottle, definitely worth trying!

 

Babywearing and Co-Sleeping

Again these go without saying, as much contact as possible with your baby as often as possible. I shall say no more here as it is so obvious!

 

No toiletries

All mammals rely strongly on scent to bond with their offspring, we are the only mammals who strip our young of their natural scent and replace it with artificial smells (even if those smells are natural in origin – such as lavender). Don’t underestimate the importance of your baby’s natural scent – leave the shampoo, baby wash, baby soap, powder, moisturiser and baby wipes and stick to plain water as much as possible – as little as possible, particularly on the head, the place where mothers subconsciously nuzzle and sniff many times per day.

 

NLP/ Hypnosis/Visualisation/ Affirmations

Techniques which can be used to great effect to help encourage bonding and recovery from a difficult birth. I particularly favour an NLP technique called “The Swish”:

http://www.nlp-now.co.uk/nlp_swish.htm

but something so simple as visualising feelings of love, happiness  and confidence building when with your baby or repeating statements such as “each day I feel my confidence growing and my love for my baby building” (yes you do feel stupid at first!) can have profound effects. You can visit a hypnotherapist or for a fraction of the cost you can download an audio MP3 such as this one:

http://www.hypnoticworld.com/downloads/baby_bonding.php

 

Time

They say time is the greatest healer, don’t rush yourself, it will only make you feel more guilty – you’ve proved what a great mum you are by recognising the issue and wanting to change and  a change will happen,  but it might not be instant, particularly if you are  first having to go through a grief process.

Sarah

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About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
This entry was posted in Babies, Birth, Mothering and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to How to Heal from a Traumatic Birth & Bond with Your Baby

  1. Robyn Alexander says:

    I love this. As a midwife I often come across women who have not had the most positive of birth experiences. This is ideal for me to start helping them.

  2. Linda says:

    Thank you so much. My son was born 5 weeks early and spent 15 days in the NICU. I also have/had a toddler so I barely saw my baby those 15 days. I breastfeed but it’s taken me a lot longer to bond with my second vs my first. I sometimes have hated myself for that and I know its because he wasn’t home with me. He’s now 3 months and we’re almost there. He is 3 months but I will try more skin to skin and other interactive activities. I did find it a little hard trying not to make my now 2yo jealous but maybe he can join in. I only the last two weeks admitted out loud to a friend and my husband about my struggles.

  3. Patricia says:

    Thanks. Great advice here and I would add EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) to the toolbox. It will help because when we have a trauma our energy system holds onto it and creates an energy block. EFT shifts the block and thus releases the emotional change attached to the traumatic memory. It’s easy to learn and do.

  4. Catherine says:

    Thanks so much for this. I was once told by an OB that a c- section was the ‘easiest way to have a baby’. I don’t think I felt completely healed until I had a VBAC. realizing that I COULD have a vaginal birth was empowering and ‘re-opened’ the wound from previous births at the same time.

  5. SouthwarkBelle says:

    Firstly, thank you for talking about this, it’s a topic that effects many women, yet is rarely covered.

    I’d also add CBT in here (cognitive behavioural therapy) there is good evidence of this being effective for PTSD, including birth trauma and it’s available free on the NHS. That said it can be hard to access in some places which is a great shame.

    Also, I don’t agree that co-sleeping and baby wearing are “obvious” in this situation, everyone is different but after my first very difficult birth and emergency c/s I was on a lot of pain medication, exhausted to the point of hallucinations and unable to move easily in bed. I simply did not feel safe having my baby in bed with me. Similarly I was unable to stand upright for many weeks so couldn’t manage a sling, in order to get out I relied on using my buggy as a walking aid.

    It’s important to remember that many women feel a great deal of guilt about “failing” to have a natural birth. It’s not helpful to add in more guilt for not co-sleeping etc.

    There is also a charity who can offer help:
    http://www.birthtraumaassociation.org.uk/

    I also felt far better, and far more “empowered” after my second birth, but for me this was achieved by choosing to have a planned C-section in a calm and controlled environment.

  6. Marlana says:

    I love this article. co-sleeping especially helped me. I never realized how resentful I really was feeling towards my daughter when I had to get up four or so times a night and try to get her back to sleep. The very first night after I tried co-sleeping, I woke up and looked down at her and she smiled up at me. I felt immediately more in love with her and connected to her than I ever had when she slept in her crib.

  7. I had a horrible birth and hospital experience with my first baby, even though on paper it was a normal incomplicated birth for me it was such a horrible experience and I spent the entire time after he was born until I got home trying not to cry at how shoved to one side I had been made to feel. My son is 7 now, his birth still upsets me and I hate that I wasn’t able to bond with him as I have my other baby. The guilt is the worst and makes me question my parenting a lot more x

  8. I was blessed that it seemed to help my loved ones to talk through what happened as much as it helped me. Talking about it helps so much and time really does heal.
    It’s so true that “she’s here, you’re both safe and that’s all that matters” is not always enough. I’m so grateful that we are both here, but man, I sure am missing her twin and frankly, I lost a lot of time with my other five while I was enduring a really hard pregnancy, birth and recovery.

  9. Leanna says:

    Thank you so much for sharing these tips. I spent 4 weeks following an emergency c section with my baby in NICU due to a small birth weight of 3.3 lbs at 37 weeks. I’m assuming that as a result of all the drugs in me and the shock of the surgery, when they held my baby up to my face straight after they pulled him out of me I felt…nothing. I could hear my confused thoughts wondering at the time why I wasn’t feeling anything and somewhat sad that I wasn’t. I told myself that I was “supposed” to cry and feel overjoyed, but I simply didn’t.
    Then after 30 minutes in recovery, I was taken to my baby and he was placed naked on my bare breast. I have photos that show this moment yet I don’t recall it with a deep heartfelt connection. Yet the drugs stopped me from worrying about it too much as I was on morphine as part if my drug mix. All I know for sure is that a couple days later when I got a skin to skin cuddle and the strongest drugs were no longer in my system…holy crap! The smell of my baby was like a drug! Touching his skin was the happiest moment in my life! I can’t believe the physical affect of being with him, simply amazing for me.
    But now at home I am wary of co sleeping because I imagine that I’m doing something ‘wrong’ so I don’t do it. Thank you for giving me permission to!

  10. caroline says:

    Its important to remember that although all these things may help with bonding and ease some of the pain nothing can undo what a woman has gone through and the best thing is to be understanding. Even if a birth story seems “normal” you need to be able to say “I understand that wasn’t what you wanted” etc.
    I had a horrific pregnancy and birth with my first, followed by a postnatal complication that nearly killed me. I was treated like a bad mother because my baby was at home with her dad while I lay in the labour wards hdu having tests to see if I needed multiple organ transplants.
    With my second everything was perfect, exactly as I planned and wanted, I refused skin to skin and was treated badly for this, but I knew my body, I knew a c-section and all the drugs made me vomit and I didn’t want the first experience with my child to be me vomiting on them! (I was sick through out both my sections)
    Sadly my son was very poorly and until he was over his treatments (several extensive neurosurgeries) I daren’t fully bond with him, for fear that he would die and the hole he would leave if I bonded with him would have been too much.
    None of the above would have undone that, but I was lucky and had incredible understanding support from those nhs staff surrounding me, and the second he came.out of surgery the bond I was holding back from.was cemented.
    Perspective and understanding, and actually listening to the logic and reasoning behind why a woman’s birth wasn’t perfect is key to helping them deal with it and rebuild their lives, which could be dramatically different to how they imagined.

  11. Helen Gray says:

    I’m really surprised that you haven’t included breastfeeding in this list of ways to heal from a traumatic birth.
    After a difficult birth, mothers may need extra help in getting breastfeeding going, but once mum and baby are breastfeeding, they benefit from the hormones involved (which can lift a mother’s mood and improve her sleep!), and of course all the physical contact that breastfeeding brings.
    For some mothers who have been through a traumatic birth, this is tremendously healing and empowering.
    Breastfeeding can be much more challenging after a difficult birth, with all the impact that drugs, instrumental births, IV fluids, blood loss, shock and pain can have on mum’s milk supply and on baby’s ability to suckle well. We should be calling for more awareness of this impact among health professionals and for the health service to provide extra support or to refer mothers to qualified support in these cases, rather than leaving mothers to suffer and have even more terrible memories.
    In some cases breastfeeding isn’t possible and mothers deserve to know why it isn’t working for them, rather than platitudes. Again, access to more qualified support is crucial.

  12. spanwingie says:

    My little girl (first and only) is two now. This is the first time I have read or heard anything that felt remotely like my feelings for these two long years and I have just cried and cried reading it, along with the oxytocin article,the two of which couldn’t have summed up my experience more acurately.

    We had the difficult birth bit, back to back and head stuck on pelvis, pushy epidural midwives, wires up the floo and all over baby before she was even born and the drip, forceps blah blah, the gynaecological consultant who did the delivery told me stp crying as ‘nothing was wrong’ the quiet affair I was after. She struggled to breastfeed for two weeks and when she finally did eat she had very severe reflux that lasted until she started solid food at 6 months.

    I had the strongest sense of failure/guilt that I wasn’t overcome with the rush plus the physical discomfort of epi etc and months of massive sleep deprivation and despite the fact I was clearly a desperate woman on the edge the hv and mw could offer nothing but platitudes.

    Gradually I have superseded these feelings and got back to normal but just recently a friend has had what seemed like my perfect pregnancy, birth and hassle free breastfeeding and I’ve been struggling with feelings of guilt for feeling slightly jealous and all the old feelings rushing back despite the fact I am genuinely over the moon for them. I wouldn’t wish my version on anyone!

    Thanks for the info,hopefully it will help me to really move on.

    Need to add that for every second though I have loved my baby girl, sometimes I thought I was just missing a bit of the feelings and evidently I could well have been!

    H

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