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When Birthing Goes Wrong Women Can Suffer From A Traumatic Delivery, Labor and Birth. Art Can Help With Birth Trauma

Updated on November 23, 2015

Birth Trauma


Understanding Maternal Birth Trauma

Anything can happen at a woman’s birth, no matter how well a mother planned. In a blink of a moment, stress of the mother’s health or baby’s health can change the perception of birth to a traumatic one.

Or she experienced a birth procedure that may have been unnecessary and avoidable.

Women who have endured horrible experiences during labor and birth suffers psychological harm. To understand psychological and physical birth trauma means bearing witness to horrible events, events that society rarely wants to hear about.

There is a dispute that birth trauma and post traumatic responses to birth are false. How can a mother suffers a traumatic birth when she sees and holds her baby in the end? Birth is perceived in this country to be one of the happiest days of a women’s life.

Birth trauma phenomenon is credible and real. Sadly, birth trauma seems to be increasing as this country meanders around supporting the mother and her body during labor and birth, to directly having a quick and a perceived successful outcome of a healthy baby and mom.

Telling the truth about birth trauma are prerequisites both for the restoration birth in this society and for the healing of individual mothers. While birth trauma and its after effects have been around for centuries, it is only recently that women are able to begin to talk out loud about the negative impact of this modern birth cultural. In medicines attempt to soothe labor pains, we have been moving away from supporting the mother not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually during her birth process.

Modern medicine has taken over the natural process of birth. Interventions, can start labor, stale labor, stop labor. Interventions can have the baby out in minutes with a cesarean. Today, women can sign up for the exact time and day when their baby will be born. The messy and the mystery of birth seems to be controlled.

However, it is not controlled. Mothers experience the messy aftershocks of what is perceived as a simple quick intervention when they are sent home. Isolated, she plays the story in her head. Was she coarse into an intervention she did not want? In the haste to quicken a birth was there an intervention done to the mother without her consent?

Psychological trauma is an affliction or perception of powerlessness. America’s birth cultural is fooling itself in believing that moms do not perceive or experience powerlessness during her labor and birth. As a doula I witness this over and over again. One of my jobs is to help the mom feel powerful in her decision making. Making sure she has adequate information to make a choice. However, I witness times when interventions are implemented without the women ever having an opportunity to consent. Why is this happening?

Birth trauma also involves threats to the women’s life or her bodily integrity. Simply, the threat of death and danger trigger traumatic responses. Women do not need to be in a war zone, to experience this threat. Statistics continue to depict that cesarean birth continues to escalate. With major surgery on a women’s abdomen, and uterus her bodily integrity is altered. Women, indeed, can suffer from birth trauma after a cesarean birth.

Traumatic births can be so stressful they can overwhelm the mother’s adaptations to cope. This does not imply that some mothers can cope better than others. It is how the experienced is perceived and integrated in her body.

Women Dying In Childbirth

Birthing women are not a stranger to pain, and even death. Throughout history women understand this on a very basic and primordial level. Stories of women dying in childbirth hundreds of years ago are not only integrated in a women’s mind, but are also on a cellular level. Women have descended from other women. The cells hold memory. On a very primitive level a women acknowledges or has an unconscious awareness of this history. She can die during childbirth or her baby could. If there are indicators, even the slightest indicators of threat to herself or her baby she is already predisposed to integrating a frightful experience.

In today’s medical advances a woman dying in childbirth or the baby has decreased significantly. And yet in almost every childbirth class I teach, when asking parents, what do you fear in labor? A mother or her partner would respond dying. I acknowledge this as a universal fear. And the likely hood of this happening is very unrealistic.

This is not to say, that the perceived danger of death during some child births does not happen. I have heard and counseled women who had a terrifying childbirth experience when she experienced that she or her baby would die. She has been traumatized because of the frightening birth experience.

Birth care professionals, mothers and society need to understand the psychological effects of birth trauma and how these symptoms are reflected in early attachment to their babies, their identity, and their relationships to their partners, to begin to change this trend.

Traumatic Birth and Having A Newborn

Women who have suffered birth trauma often tell their stories in a highly emotional and fragmented manner. The shock of the birth experience can throw the body and mind off-balance. Unlike other traumas, birth trauma is unique in that the mother thrushes immediately into taking care of an infant who most often depends solely on her. New mothers are already in a survival mood when an infant arrives. Most often it is difficult to just get adequate sleep, nutrition and a shower.

To incorporate her birth experience a mother needs space and room to process, especially if the birth was traumatic. This may be difficult when she is overwhelmed with the care of a newborn. And yet if she suffers from a traumatic birth, the need to disown the effects and memories of the birth trauma and the need to remain in control of them are often symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Her mind will not pause for her baby to sleep through the night to begin to work through the trauma.

She needs resources immediately. The mother needs to be caught and swaddled, cared for and nurtured so she can nurture her baby. Her story must unfold in a way that does not re-traumatize her over and over again. Art making is an effective method in managing symptoms of birth trauma. Art plays a special role in gaining access to the traumatic images and memories.

Art Remedy


Using Art for Healing

The artwork facilitates healing by creating a reflective distance form the body and mind of the mother who survived a traumatic birth experience. Art making creates a safe space for an integrative and healing opportunity for mothers.

The mother’s body is a vessel of her labor, birth and breastfeeding stories. Scars visible and invisible wounds make up her body’s narrative. She can communicate her birth story through verbalization, body posture, expression of emotions and imagery. Emotions and imagery not only communicate the body’s chronology, but they can be used to change and heal the body. Imagery links communication between the creators unconscious and conscious mind.

Art making can bypass the verbal fragmentation that often accompanies trauma recollection and reach the symbolic language. Art offers an avenue for exploration and expression of the incommunicable aspects of the women’s birth story. Engagement with the art materials becomes a way to dwell within emotional realms that might otherwise be overwhelming, providing a way for the mind and body to integrate the story of the trauma.

“I hope you will go out and let stories happen to you, and that you will work them, water them with your blood and tears and you laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom.”Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Art Experience

If you had a birth trauma experience, or feel you need to process your birth to let go of some negative or emotional memories, here is an art experiential you might want to try.

It may help if you can think about making this collage for a 'friend' who had the same experience you did. Sometimes it helps to put traumatic experiences together when we can put separation from ourselves and the memory. So for instance if you were going to write about your experience, I would suggest to write in third person instead of first person. "The woman went to the hospital." Instead of, "I went to the hospital." You can do the same principle when you are making the collage. 'I am finding a picture for the woman who had to get the epidural.' Instead of, 'I need to find an image for when I got the epidural.'

You are encouraged to make a collage about your birth experience. In this collage you are welcome to find any images or words you would like to depict the birth experience.

Plus add an image for each of the following...

  1. A moment when you felt empowered during this birth experience.
  2. The moment you first felt like a mother to this little one you just birthed. (This moment does not always happen right after birth, if this moment was days or weeks, it is OK.)
  3. A helper or guide. (This could have been someone who was actually in the birth room with you, or a spiritual connection to God, or someone you now confide in.)
  4. An image that depicts your power to be able to endure such a traumatic experience. Even if you did not feel powerful during the labor and birth, you survived and made it through. The image chosen reflects the strength to make it through.

Materials Needed:

  • Magazines
  • Glue Sticks
  • Scissors
  • Poster Board
  • Paper
  • Pen
  1. Collect images and words from magazines. Do not worry where you will place them into your collage or trimming the images yet. Just collect images and words that you are drawn too, even the ones you are mysteriously drawn too and do not know why.
  2. Once you feel you have enough to put the story together, start trimming the images with your scissors.
  3. You now can begin to assemble the images on your poster board. You might want to wait until you placed all the images where you want them before you start to glue them down. That way you can move things around as needed until you are satisfied with the layout.
  4. Glue the images down.
  5. Once your collage is assembled, begin to freely write whatever is coming out of you. It could be
  • thoughts about the birth experience
  • what the images represent
  • how you are feeling now

When you have completed your collage you might want to find a trusted friend or therapist to share the experience with.

You can overcome birth trauma. Even if the trauma was 20 plus years ago.

Carly Sullens 2012. All Rights Reserved.


Submit a Comment
  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 

    6 years ago

    This is a very good article and will help others to see how art can be used to heal. It's a great way to express emotions and feelings that are so deep within us. I wrote an article on how children use art to express themselves and your hub verifies the therapy of art in helping one to go through the process of grieving. Voted way up!

  • CarlySullens profile imageAUTHOR

    Carly Sullens 

    6 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

    Thank You Rambanita, yes indeed, a mother's experience of her pregnancy, labor and birth does directly affect her ability to bond with her infant. Women have bravely told me that they have a deeper bond with the child who she labor and delivered with less hindrance than with her other child that she experienced a painful birth. This continues years after the birth. This is not true for all women and all labors, but it does seem to be an important part of postpartum care. If we can support the mother better after her labor and birth and help her process through any pain and trauma, than that may enable her to bond more fully with her baby in those early informative months and years to come.

    I look forward to seeing your collage if you choose to share that with me. You do pose another important thought. Can the child whose birth experience with their mother was traumatic heal that wound? Even years after and the mother is not available to help process their birth? I believe yes.

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    Carly..this is so wonderful...Having just experienced My Daughter giving birth to her first Child, through the wonders of SKYPE I can see that there are so many internal and external factors that Contribute to a Loving, and accepting Birth Experience...I am so glad that My Girl was supported emotionally and physically to such an extent that to new see her bonding with her 7 day old baby Girl fills my heart with Joy...She is able to bond instinctively and reflexively....On reading your Article here, I am able to see some of the Glitches that hindered my own Mother when It came to bonding with me...The trauma around the Circumstances of My arrival incapacitated her Primal Instincts.....Im going to do a collage of my own...... thank you .......


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