When things don’t go to plan: Post-traumatic stress disorder after birth

This blog post discusses the condition of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after birth. When things don’t go to plan, it can be hard to deal with the aftermath. This article discusses what PTSD is and how you might feel if you experience this in your life.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) refers to a range of symptoms or reactions that you can develop if you have personally experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. For some people, childbirth can also fit into this category.

A traumatic event is one in which you, or others around you, may have felt threatened or unsafe and leads you to feel intense fear, helplessness, or horror. Both men and women can experience PTSD after experiencing or watching a birth.

What are the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder following birth?

If you have PTSD following birth, you may find yourself experiencing the following types of difficulties:

Re-living the birth/traumatic event

Through unwanted and recurring memories, including vivid images and/or nightmares. This may cause you to experience intense emotional or physical reactions, such as sweating, heart palpitations, or panic when reminded of or discussing the birth or events.

Being overly alert or wound up

Being overly alert or would up lead you to experience sleeping difficulties, irritability, and lack of concentration, becoming easily startled and constantly on the lookout for signs of danger.

Avoiding reminders of the event

Some parents find themselves wanting to deliberately avoid activities, places, people, thoughts, or feelings associated with the birth or aftercare event because it brings back painful memories.

Feeling emotionally numb

You may find yourself losing interest in day-to-day activities, feeling cut off and detached from friends and family, or feeling emotionally flat and numb.

Sad woman sitting on bed feeling depressed

Who is at risk?

Post-traumatic stress disorder following birth can happen to anyone, particularly those who have experienced:

  • A previous traumatic or difficult birth
  • Rape or sexual assault in the past – as birth can remind them of their previous experiences where they felt sexually violated, assaulted, or invaded
  • Intimate partner violence and other traumas

For these reasons it is important to discuss this with your obstetrician, midwife, or birthing professional prior to the birth or those involved in your delivery at the time of birth – so they can be extra sensitive to your experience and support.

If you can identify with these symptoms, there are effective treatments available to help you recover from PTSD and allow you to move forward from the traumatic experience.

Treatment of PTSD following a traumatic birth can involve a range of approaches that are effective whether or not the event was recent or occurred a long time ago.

Psychological treatment for PTSD following birth

Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

This treatment can help you to identify distressing thoughts, painful memories, and feelings that you may hold from birth, and give you tools and strategies to confront and come to terms with what has happened so that you don’t feel as distressed by them.

Treatment also generally involves giving you strategies to help you to relax, and stop the anxious feelings that you may be experiencing, as well as helping you identify and address situations that you may be avoiding. This can include, for example, avoiding intimacy, talking about the birth, or delaying a future pregnancy.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

This is a technique used specifically to treat PTSD by getting you to recall distressing images while using an external stimulus, such as eye movement or tapping. As with CBT, this treatment works by helping you to process distressing memories, reduce their lingering effects and allow you to develop effective coping strategies.

Medical treatment for PTSD following birth

Antidepressant medication, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are helpful for the treatment of PTSD. This type of antidepressant can be safely used whilst breastfeeding.

Even if you don’t have depression, antidepressants can help make feelings associated with trauma more manageable.


When things don’t go to plan: Post-traumatic stress disorder after birth. People should seek help if they are having distressing thoughts or feelings associated with the trauma, even if this occurs years later.

When people have access to effective treatments that can help them recover from PTSD following a traumatic birth and move forward in their lives, it is important for them not to be afraid of reaching out for support. When things don’t go to plan: Post-traumatic stress disorder after birth.

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