PTSD in birthing partners

It is now commonly recognised that following a difficult childbirth or pregnancy some people may go on to develop psychological problems such as PTSD or C-PTSD

A lesser discussed result of birth can be post-natal PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder for birthing partners.

There are many reasons why birthing partners may develop PTSD or C-PTSD after childbirth, from the person giving birth finding themselves in danger during the labour – for example, haemorrhaging – or the child encountering complications, such as being born not breathing or getting stuck during the journey through the birth canal. For many partners, they don’t even realise it is possible to get PTSD. All the focus is on the person giving birth and the pain they are enduring, with little consideration given to the partner and what that experience will feel like for them, both during the event and after.

Why can birthing partners develop post natal PTSD?

In the UK, it is thought that up to 15.7% of people who give birth will develop trauma-related symptoms after childbirth. This can come through experiencing stillbirth, emergency delivery, cardiac arrest, inadequate pain relief, forceps, post-partum haemorrhage, prolonged painful labour, rapid delivery, severe toxaemia, caesarean or many other complications or events.

For birthing partners, they will also witness these situations and quite often will feel out of control and fearful of what is happening. They aren’t able to do anything to help and may see a lot of stressful sights, including lots of blood or medical procedures. Although research into this area is limited, it is thought that as many as 5% of partners develop trauma symptoms having been present during the birth. It is a considerably large yet unacknowledged public health problem.

How does post-natal PTSD manifest itself?

After a traumatic event, largely defined as experiencing a threat to your own life or witnessing a threat to someone else’s, it is possible for anyone to experience post-traumatic stress disorder. From natural disasters to traffic accidents, physical attacks to illness, abuse to childbirth, there are many reasons why it can become a problem.

PTSD and C-PTSD may manifest through flashbacks, a constant feeling of anxiety, nightmares, feeling on edge or jumpy, avoidance of certain situations that prove as a reminder, lacking emotional attachment, feeling a sense of danger, plus many other symptoms. These can all have a negative experience on someone’s quality of life. From speaking with a doctor, it will be possible to get a diagnosis and support.

Are there any early interventions that can help birthing partners?

As much of the focus during pregnancy and labour is on the person giving birth, there is little discussion of the impact that it can have on the partner, despite the fact that 98% of partners attend the birth in the UK. Often partners feel powerless, shocked and distressed; but the lack of understanding from medical professionals in relation to what they experience means they are not often encouraged to get help. Often there is the mindset of ‘pull yourself together and care for your partner and child’. Yet it is a difficult life experience for partners too.

It is important that midwives are on the lookout for traumatic childbirth situations, and educate partners on what they may experience in the weeks and months afterwards so they don’t then find themselves suffering from PTSD symptoms five years down the line. Often in these situations, the partners are left wondering why they are struggling.

Talking about PTSD and other mental health illnesses is a big way of breaking down the taboo surrounding these conditions, and also a way of showing that it is normal to feel such emotions after a traumatic life event. It is valuable that information is available to both partners in the lead up to labour, with awareness of some of the stressful situations that may arise and how these can be overcome. If the partner knows what the doctors will be doing in an emergency situation, this may help to alleviate some of the concern and anxiety.

Ultimately, ensuring counselling is available to partners during the post-natal period (should they need it) can help them talk about what they have gone through and ensure they are better equipped for supporting their partner and child too. This will allow them to identify any issues such as PTSD, and get the treatment they require. They’ll be in a much better headspace, feeling less out of control.

What can I do if I think my partner might have post-natal PTSD?

Acknowledging that you may have PTSD or C-PTSD can be hard, and changes in their mental health may have felt so gradual they might have not noticed the issues. In the situation of Post-Natal PTSD, they may also feel that their symptoms are simply due to adapting to a new life as a parent, or from lack of sleep perhaps.

If you think your partner may have Post Natal-PTSD, its important to let them know you care and are there to listen when they are ready to talk. Broach the subject if you can, but without judgment. Take any conversations at their pace, and gently encourage them to help themselves by staying active, eating well and doing things they enjoy. Gather all the information you can about PTSD, educate yourself on how to help and if the time seems right, guide them to our website to read a little more and see if they recognise any of the symptoms in themselves (they may be feeling other symptoms you haven’t noticed). If they’re willing, encourage them to see their GP as soon as possible, who will likely refer them to their local mental health team for diagnosis and to discuss treatment options. During this process, it’s important to take care of yourself, and your new baby.

If the person you’re worried about expresses suicidal feelings, you or they should contact a GP or NHS 111. You can also contact Samaritans on 116 123 for confidential, 24-hour support or 999 if they are in immediate danger.

Once PTSD has been diagnosed, what treatments and options are available?

While choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for PTSD and C-PTSD in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). 

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Treatments for PTSD

It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.