Maternal Birth Trauma,
& Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

by John A. Speyrer

"Birth is a genital event and an impending confinement almost inevitably mobilizes the memories of that distant period when the prospective mother herself was in the position of the child within her womb."
--Nandor Fodor, Search For the Beloved, 1949

(It allows the parent) ". . . to become reacquainted with oneself as a baby, to reexperience the pain of being totally dependent and desperately in love and yet being shut out and feeling unwanted. People construct their defenses in order to prevent being reengulfed by such feelings. But when one becomes a parent, the buried, unresolved pain is shaken loose, the defensive wall is breached, and new defensive efforts are required, which in the case of the dismissing parent, means keeping the baby and its needs at some distance."
-- R. Karen, 2004, p. 374 in, Becoming Attached: First Relationships,
and How They Shape Our Capacity To Love
Quoted in R.Godwin, One Cosmos Under God

"It is my contention that bearing a child becomes traumatic whenever the similarity between giving birth to a child and being born approaches close to
the threshold of awareness"

--Nandor Fodor, Search For the Beloved, 1949

A few minutes ago I googled "birth trauma and PTSD" and was surprised to find 129 entries for that phrase, but soon realized that the articles were about the mother's trauma while giving birth - not about the trauma of the birthing infant.

Mothers can get traumatized giving birth and so can their babies. However, the trauma of the birth is typically much less severe for the mother than for the baby.

If that is so why do some women giving birth sometimes end up with post partum depression and post traumatic stress disorder and the baby seems fine? Its the same reason why some veterans end up with PTSD, even if they sometimes were only on the periphery of combat or were in very light combat situations and sometimes if they had no combat at all, but became anxious and fearful by worrying that they may soon be in combat.

It is very difficult for an adult to be directly traumatized but extremely easy for a fetus, less so for an infant, and much less so for a young child. An older child might escape being mildly traumatized while the same intensity of a trauma would hobble a birthing fetus throughout her life with a severe case of PTSD.

The baby, at birth, may have endured severe trauma but repressed its experience. Her mother gets PTSD because in giving birth she unrepressed her earlier experience of traumatic birth. The presence of child sexual abuse in the birthing mother is an important additional factor which cannot be dismissed.

When we experience an event our brain performs a scan to see if there was an earlier event with the same or similar content. During earlier events the emotions which originally occurred are presented once again in order for us to know how to handle the situation - how to respond. Feelingwise, we may react by becoming cautious, happy, etc. - depending on what the scanning discovered in our memory both repressed and conscious. However, if the earlier happening was traumatic we may feel in the present as we had felt in the past. So, if we almost died while being born, we might have an unreasonable terror of death now and become a severe hypochrondriac and never know the cause.

What the birthing mother feels in the post birth period may be what she felt when she herself was born but immediately repressed. She can now become a victim of PTSD because giving birth triggers her memory of her own birth. One factor is that the hormones which were coursing both in her mother's body and in her body remind her of the earlier event. They help to trigger the unconscious but coded memory of the earlier traumatic event. (See article Being Born and Giving Birth )

Freud's idea that we have a tendency to recapitulate the trauma we experienced earlier remains a valid one. Birthing mothers tend to follow the script of how they had experienced their own birth.

"Moreover, other kinds of trauma are often evoked during birth. For example, as psychotherapist Dr. Michael Irving has observed, if the mother has been sexually abused, that memory is likely to be activated in her during delivery, because giving birth, can be symbolic of sexual abuse in many ways.
For example, the mother's genital area is exposed to strangers, and the movement of the child through the birth canal and resulting pain--may be similar to the pain of sexual violation. Not only does the mother's traumatic experience of sexual abuse permeate into the baby, but it can also interfere with the actual proces of birth." (Quoted from Healing Our Beginning, Shela F., Dennis and Matthew Linn (2005), pps. 59-60.)

Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, in Psychology of the Future (2000) writes that mothers who have recently given birth are in an opportune period for deep psychological work around their own birth trauma. (p. 81)

In the birth canal she might have felt like she was dying - that the situation was hopeless. In giving birth the mother might tap into these earlier memories and it feels to her like she is dying in the present. She may also feel helpless and hopeless now because she felt hopeless and helpless then. The repressed memory is the source of the PTSD event.

It has been estimated that 25% of birthing mothers who later suffered from post partum depression have had previous visits with mental health professionals (Post Partum Depression vs. The Baby Blues [audio on This might reveal pre-existing mental health issues unrelated to their giving birth but possibly related to their own traumatic birth.

Throughout history childbirth for both the mother and the fetus were often matters of life and death. So why would not birthing a child be traumatic in itself even without considering that the mother-to-be may be unconsciously reliving her own birth?

Both psychologically and physically, the birthing mother during her delivery has much less susceptibility to trauma than does her child being born. For example, the rape of a six month child is much more traumatic than is the rape of a twenty year old person. The infant being born is much more sensitive than the mother giving it birth. Much of the experience is hidden away from perception but its imprint is stored nonetheless. The infant's undeveloped brain cannot fully process the trauma it experiences. However, the mother while giving birth becomes susceptible to the repressed memory of her past birthing trauma and/or earlier sexual abuse which become closer into consciousness and, I believe, experienced as a post traumatic stress occurrence with depression, insomnia, anxiety and other elements of the original trauma.

Surprisingly, it is not just the birth mother who is susceptible to post partum depression. A remarkable percentage of fathers have incipient psychiatric problems which are triggered after, and even before, their baby is born! Other than depression some have difficulty sleeping and even panic attacks. And it is not just thinking about the new obligation of providing for the larger family.

Like most psychological problems, the problem roots for both the soon to be father and present father go deeper. The explanation is in the article, Cuddling and Holding As Stress Reducers and . . . As Possible Stress Increasers.

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