Understanding Childbirth Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)


Childbirth is often considered a joyful and life-changing experience. However, for some women, it can be a traumatic event leading to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Recent studies show that nearly 9% of postnatal women develop some form of PTSD. Childbirth-related PTSD is a serious condition, and understanding its causes, recognizing the symptoms, and seeking appropriate treatment is crucial.

What Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental and behavioral disorder resulting from one or more traumatic events. Symptoms can last anywhere from 1+ month after the event to many years.

Examples of common symptoms:

  • Disturbing thoughts, feelings, or dreams related to the event
  • Alterations in the way the person thinks and feels
  • Increased fight-or-flight response
  • Mental distress to trauma-related cues
  • Physical distress to trauma-related cues
  • Avoidance of trauma-related cues
  • A person with PTSD is at an increased risk for intentional self-harm, including suicide.

In the United States, roughly 9% of the population develop PTSD at some point in their life, and it is more common in women than men.


Symptoms of trauma-related mental symptoms have been documented since at least the ancient Greek period, and aspects of PTSD was been described in Assyrian soldiers in texts dated to 1300 – 600 BCE. Many historical diagnoses throughout the centuries would today most likely be considered PTSD. This includes soldier´s heart, shell shock, battle fatigue, war nerves, certain types of neuroasthenia, combat neurosis, combat stress reaction, and traumatic war neurosis. In the 17th century, London diarist Samuel Pepys described what we would today call PTSD symptoms after the devastating 1666 Fire of London. In the 19th century, railway spine (also known as Erichsen’s disease) was a diagnosis for the post-traumatic effects of serious railroad accidents.

Causes of Childbirth-Related PTSD

There are numerous contributing factors that can lead to the development of PTSD following childbirth. These include a history of mental health issues, previous trauma, a low level of support during delivery, high levels of medical intervention, and the perception of the childbirth experience. 

A woman’s birth experience can greatly influence her emotional wellbeing. For example, an unplanned caesarean section, instrumental delivery, or emergency situation can increase the risk of developing PTSD. Other aspects such as poor communication by the medical team, feelings of powerlessness, fear for personal or baby’s life, or a lack of practical and emotional support after birth can also contribute to the onset of this disorder.

Symptoms of Childbirth-Related PTSD

Experiencing PTSD after childbirth can manifest in several ways. A woman might have intrusive and recurrent flashbacks of the traumatic birth. She may avoid anything related to the event, which can include her baby and even her partner. Other symptoms include insomnia, irritability, hypervigilance, and emotional numbness. 

Some women might develop postnatal depression (postpartum depression), which can confuse the diagnosis as the symptoms may overlap. However, it’s important to differentiate between the two as the treatment may vary.

Treatment for Childbirth-Related PTSD

Understanding and recognizing childbirth-related PTSD is the first step to recovery. Various treatment options are available and can include cognitive-behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and medication. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) involves working with a therapist to alter negative thought patterns and behaviors. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is another effective treatment that helps reduce the strength of negative emotions associated with memories of the traumatic event. In some cases, medication may be used to manage severe symptoms of PTSD.

In the United States, the main treatments for a person with PTSD are counseling and medication. The first-line medications are antidepressants of the SSRI or SNRI type. If we look at the whole patient group for PTSD (and not just childbirth-related PTSD), SSRI or SNRI medication is moderately beneficial for roughly 50% of the patients, and benefits from medication are less than those seen with counseling. We do not know if using medication and counseling together is more beneficial than each method utilized separately.

It’s crucial that women with symptoms of PTSD seek and receive suitable professional help. Speaking to a healthcare provider about the birth experience and subsequent feelings allows for early intervention, which can greatly improve the recovery process.

Support and Coping Strategies

Supportive networks can be a lifeline for women suffering from childbirth-related PTSD. This can include partners, family, friends, and support groups where women can share their experiences and coping strategies. 

Self-care is also key to recovery. This includes a healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques can also help manage symptoms and aid in recovery. In order for self-care to happen, the mother can need help from others, e.g. with baby sitting (the baby or other children in the household) or with getting other things done so she has some time and energy left to focus on self-care.

The support system around a new mother can be tremendously important for her recovery. If the mother is not adequatly supported while caring for a newborn, it will be difficult for her to embrace any of the recommendations, e.g. attending counceling sessions, visiting doctors to discuss and adjust medications, getting enough sleep and rest, being physically active in beneficial ways, and so on.

Final Thoughts

Childbirth-related PTSD is a significant yet often overlooked issue. Increased awareness, understanding, and professional intervention can significantly improve outcomes for affected women. Remember, it’s okay to seek help. With the right support and treatment, recovery is entirely possible.

This article was last updated on: June 6, 2024