What is Birth Trauma?

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  • Written By: Amanda R. Bell
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 11 September 2019
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Birth trauma is any psychological or physical damage caused by being born or giving birth. Physical birth trauma can include injuries to the infant such as abrasions and soft tissue and bone damage. Physical trauma to the mother can include internal bleeding, tearing, and other health issues. Psychological birth trauma typically in the mother can include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and varying levels of postpartum depression. While some also theorize that an infant can experience psychological trauma, it has not been proven.

During labor and delivery, an infant can suffer physical injuries. It is estimated that this occurs in seven out of 1,000 births, with rates being higher among larger infants. A baby passes from the womb into the world through an extremely narrow passage. This, coupled with the contractions of the uterus to aid in pushing the baby out, can cause physical injuries. The most common of these in intervention-free births is soft tissue damage. Bruising and swelling of the head, face, upper body, and legs are all common and typically referred to as stork bites. Depending on the position of the infant as it moves through the birth canal, bones can fracture or even break.


When intervention is required during a vaginal birth, the forceps or vacuum used to extract the infant from its mother can cause cuts, bruising, and damage to the skull in rare cases. These injuries are typically the most severe forms of physical birth trauma. For this reason, these instruments are generally not utilized unless the infant or mother is in distress and a Caesarean section is impossible.

While giving birth, a mother can also incur physical injuries. The most common of these are perineal tears and blood loss due to hemorrhaging. While the former is relatively common and generally easily addressed with a few stitches, the latter can be dangerous if the bleeding cannot be stopped. These physical injuries, as well as other issues, can lead to psychological birth trauma in the mother.

Giving birth is considered by many to be one of the most exciting and terrifying moments in a mother's life. Many women have a very clear idea of what type of birth they want; when this expectation is not met, it can lead to postpartum depression. As with any traumatic experience, in a birth where either mom or baby require extreme lifesaving measures or experience dangerous health issues, a woman may experience PTSD. Some health care practitioners consider postpartum depression caused by drastic hormone changes to be a form of psychological birth trauma. In all of these cases, early treatment is best for both the new mother and her child.

Some believe that a physically traumatic birth can lead to psychological problems for a child. While it has been shown that physical birth trauma can lead to delays in fine motor skills, there is little-to-no evidence that the manner in which a person is born makes any difference to future mental health. Birth trauma in general, however, can have a significant impact on mothers, children, and their families.


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