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Childbirth-Related Psychological Trauma: It’s Finally on the Radar and It Affects Breastfeeding

 

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I first became interested in childbirth-related psychological trauma in 1990.  Twenty-three years ago, it was not something researchers were interested in studying.  I found only one study, and it reported that there was no relation between women’s birth experiences and their emotional health. Those results never rang true for me. There were just too many stories floating around with women describing their harrowing births.  I was convinced that the researchers got it wrong,

To really understand this issue, I decided to immerse myself in the literature on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). During the 1980s and 1990s, most trauma researchers were interested in the effects of combat, the Holocaust, or sexual assault. Not birth. But in Charles Figley’s classic book, Trauma and Its Wake, Vol. 2 (1986), I stumbled upon something that was quite helpful in understanding the possible impact of birth. In summarizing the state of trauma research in the mid-1980s, Charles stated that an event will be troubling to the extent that it is “sudden, dangerous, and overwhelming.” That was a perfect framework for me to begin to understand women’s experiences of birth. It focused on women’s subjective reactions, and I used it to describe birth trauma in my first book, Postpartum depression (1992, Sage).

Since writing Postpartum Depression, there has been an explosion of excellent research on the subject of birth trauma. The bad news is that what these researchers are finding is quite distressing: high numbers of American women, as well as women in other countries, have posttraumatic stress symptoms (PTS) after birth. Some even meet full criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder. For example, Childbirth Connection’s Listening to Mothers’ Survey II included a nationally representative sample of 1,573 mothers. They found that 9% met full-criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder following their births, and an additional 18% had posttraumatic symptoms (Beck, Gable, Sakala, & Declercq, 2011). These findings also varied by ethnic group: a whopping 26% of non-Hispanic black mothers had PTS. The authors noted that “the high percentage of mothers with elevated posttraumatic stress symptoms is a sobering statistic” (Beck, et al., 2011).

If the number of women meeting full-criteria does not seem very high to you, I invite you to compare it to another number. In the weeks following September 11th, 7.5% of residents of lower Manhattan met full criteria for PTSD (Galea et al., 2003).

Take a minute to absorb these statistics. In at least one large study, the rates of full-criteria PTSD in the U.S. following childbirth are now higher than those following a major terrorist attack.

In a meta-ethnography of 10 studies, women with PTSD were more likely to describe their births negatively if they felt “invisible and out of control” (Elmir, Schmied, Wilkes, & Jackson, 2010).  The women used phrases, such as “barbaric,” “inhumane,” “intrusive,” “horrific,” and “degrading” to describe the mistreatment they received from healthcare professionals. 

“Isn’t that just birth?,” you might ask. “Birth is hard.” Yes, it certainly can be.

But see what happens to these rates in countries where birth is treated as a normal event, where there are fewer interventions, and where women have continuous labor support. For example, in a prospective study from Sweden (N=1,224), 1.3% of mothers had PTSD and 9% described their births as traumatic (Soderquist, Wijma, Thorbert, & Wijma, 2009).  Similarly, a study of 907 women in the Netherlands found that 1.2% had PTSD and 9% identified their births as traumatic (Stramrood et al., 2011).  Both of the countries reported considerably lower rates of PTS and PTSD than those found in the U.S.

How Does this Influence Breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding can be adversely impacted by traumatic birth experiences,  as these mothers in Beck and Watson’s study (Beck & Watson, 2008) describe:

  • I hated breastfeeding because it hurt to try and sit to do it. I couldn’t seem to manage lying down. I was cheated out of breastfeeding. I feel that I have been cheated out of something exceptional.
  • The first five months of my baby’s life (before I got help) are a virtual blank. I dutifully nursed him every two to three hours on demand, but I rarely made eye contact with him and dumped him in his crib as soon as I was done. I thought that if it were not for breastfeeding, I could go the whole day without interacting with him at all.
  • Breastfeeding can also be enormously healing, and with gentle assistance can work even after the most difficult births.
  • Breastfeeding became my focus for overcoming the birth and proving to everyone else, and mostly to me, that there was something that I could do right. It was part of my crusade, so to speak, to prove myself as a mother.
  • My body’s ability to produce milk, and so the sustenance to keep my baby alive, also helped to restore my faith in my body, which at some core level, I felt had really let me down, due to a terrible pregnancy, labor, and birth. It helped build my confidence in my body and as a mother. It helped me heal and feel connected to my baby.

What You Can Do to Help

There are many things that nurses, doulas, childbirth educators, and lactation consultants can do to help mothers heal and have positive breastfeeding experiences in the wake of traumatic births. You really can make a difference for these mothers.

  • Recognize symptoms.

Although it is not within many of our scope of practice to diagnose PTSD, you can listen to a mother’s story. That, by itself, can be healing. If you believe she has PTS or PTSD, or other sequelae of trauma, such as depression or anxiety, you can refer her to specialists or provide information about resources that are available (see below). Trauma survivors often believe that they are going “crazy.” Knowing that posttraumatic symptoms are both predictable and quite treatable can reassure them. 

  • Refer her to resources for diagnosis and treatment.

There are a number of short-term treatments for trauma that are effective and widely available. EMDR, is a highly effective type of psychotherapy and is considered a frontline treatment for PTSD. Journaling about a traumatic experience is also helpful. The National Center for PTSD has many resources including a PTSD 101 course for providers and even a free app for patients called the PTSD Coach.

The site HelpGuide.org also has many great resources including a summary of available treatments, lists of symptoms, and possible risk factors.

  • Anticipate possible breastfeeding problems mothers might encounter.

Severe stress during labor can delay lactogenesis II by as much as several days (Grajeda & Perez-Escamilla, 2002). Recognize that this can happen, and work with the mother to develop a plan to counter it. Some strategies for this include increasing skin-to-skin contact if she can tolerate it, and/or possibly beginning a pumping regimen until lactogenesis II has begun. She may also need to briefly supplement, but that will not be necessary in all cases.

  •  Recognize that breastfeeding can be quite healing for trauma survivors, but also respect the mothers’ boundaries.

Some mothers may be too overwhelmed to initiate or continue breastfeeding. Sometimes, with gentle encouragement, a mother may be able handle it. But if she can’t, we must respect that. Even if a mother decides not to breastfeed, we must gently encourage her to connect with her baby in other ways, such as skin to skin, babywearing or infant massage.

  •  Partner with other groups and organizations who want to reform birth in the U.S.

Our rates of PTS and PTSD following birth are scandalously high. Organizations, such as Childbirth Connection, are working to reform birth in the U.S.  

2013 may be a banner year for recognizing and responding to childbirth-related trauma. The new PTSD diagnostic criteria were released in May in the DSM-5, and more mothers may be identified as having PTS and PTSD.

There has also been a large upswing in U.S. in the number of hospitals starting the process to become Baby Friendly, which will encourage better birthing practices.

I would also like to see our hospitals implementing practices recommended by the Mother-friendly Childbirth Initiative.

There is also a major push to among organizations, such as March of Dimes, to discourage high-intervention procedures, such as elective inductions.

And hospitals with high cesarean rates are under scrutiny. This could be the year when mothers are care providers stand together, and say that the high rate of traumatic birth is not acceptable, and it’s time that we do something about it. Amy Romano describes it this way.

 As we begin 2013, it is clear from my vantage point at the Transforming Maternity Care Partnership that the transformation is underway. In Childbirth Connection’s nearly century-long history, we’ve never seen so much political will from leaders, so much passion from grassroots advocates, and so much collaboration among clinicians and other stakeholders. This new landscape presents many new opportunities for educators and advocates

There is much you can do to help mothers who have experienced birth-related trauma. Whether you join the effort to advocate for all mothers, or simply help one traumatized mother at a time, you are making a difference. Thank you for all you do for babies and new mothers.

This article originally appeared as an editorial in the journal Clinical Lactation: Kendall-Tackett, K.A. (2013). Childbirth-related psychological trauma: An issue whose time has come. Clinical Lactation, 4(1), 9-11

References

Beck, C. T., Gable, R. K., Sakala, C., & Declercq, E. R. (2011). Posttraumatic stress disorder in new mothers: Results from a two-stage U.S. national survey. Birth, 38(3), 216-227.

Beck, C. T., & Watson, S. (2008). Impact of birth trauma on breast-feeding. Nursing Research, 57(4), 228-236.

Elmir, R., Schmied, V., Wilkes, L., & Jackson, D. (2010). Women’s perceptions and experiences of a traumatic birth: A meta-ethnography. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 66(10), 2142-2153.

Galea, S., Vlahov, D., Resnick, H., Ahern, J., Susser, E., Gold, J., . . . Kilpatrick, D. (2003). Trends of probable post-traumatic stress disorder in New York City after the September 11 terrorist attacks. American Journal of  Epidemiology, 158, 514-524.

Grajeda, R., & Perez-Escamilla, R. (2002). Stress during labor and delivery is associated with delayed onset of lactation among urban Guatemalan women. Journal of Nutrition, 132, 3055-3060.

Soderquist, I., Wijma, B., Thorbert, G., & Wijma, K. (2009). Risk factors in pregnancy for post-traumatic stress and depression after childbirth. British Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 116, 672-680.

Stramrood, C. A., Paarlberg, K. M., Huis in ‘T Veld, E. M., Berger, L. W. A. R., Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M., Schultz, W. C. M. W., & Van Pampus, M. G. (2011). Posttraumatic stress following childbirth in homelike- and hospital settings. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology, 32(2), 88-97.

Reports from Childbirth Connection on Important Issues Regarding Birth in the U.S.

Helpful Links to Share with Mothers

About Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., IBCLC, RLC, FAPA

Kathleen Kendall-Tackett is a health psychologist and an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. She is the Owner and Editor-in-Chief of Praeclarus Press, a small press specializing in women’s health. Dr. Kendall-Tackett is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association in both the Divisions of Health and Trauma Psychology, Editor-in-Chief of U.S. Lactation Consultant Association’s journal, Clinical Lactation, and is President-Elect of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Trauma Psychology. Dr. Kendall-Tackett is author of more than 320 journal articles, book chapters and other publications, and author or editor of 22 books in the fields of trauma, women’s health, depression, and breastfeeding, including Treating the Lifetime Health Effects of Childhood Victimization, 2nd Edition (2013, Civic Research Institute), Depression in New Mothers, 2nd Edition (2010, Routledge), and Breastfeeding Made Simple, 2nd Edition (co-authored with Nancy Mohrbacher, 2010).

 

Babies, Breastfeeding, Childbirth Education, Depression, EMDR, Guest Posts, Infant Attachment, Maternal Mental Health, Perinatal Mood Disorders, Postpartum Depression, PTSD, Trauma work , , , , , , , , ,

EMDR Part Three: Listening to Women; Personal Experiences of EMDR for Treating PTSD

February 28th, 2013 by avatar

In this series about EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Part One looked at qualitative research evaluating EMDR as treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (childbirth onset). In Part Two, EMDR clinicians weighed in on their feelings about the safety of EMDR during pregnancy. When those EMDR posts were published, I received a lot of behind the scenes feedback from women who either loved or hated their experiences with EMDR; there didn’t seem to be a middle ground!

Women Thrive When They Learn Emotional Skills Istock/GoldenKB

I felt these women’s voices need to be heard (many thanks to Sharon Muza, S&S Community Manager, for her gracious agreement!) The results are here: four interviews conducted with four real women who suffered from trauma in the perinatal period and tried EMDR.

It’s unfortunate these lovely women suffered extreme emotional turmoil at such an important time in their life; when they were working and hoping to build their emergent family and when they were primarily responsible for the safety and care of their infants.

Through sharing their stories, all women indicated to me that they hope that their voices will contribute to the collective movement to incorporate mental health care into the overall care of women and their families in the childbearing year.

Characteristics of Their Trauma

All of the women interviewed experienced trauma in the early postpartum period. Three suffered specifically from birth trauma; all experienced a severe perinatal mood disorder. Three of the women additionally were coping with complex, long-term, multi-layered emotional trauma, stemming back to abuse in childhood.

All of the women interviewed were seeing licensed therapists who incorporated EMDR into their overall treatment plan for trauma. Some asked to have their identities masked, so identifying details and names are obscured, but the overall personal statements and feelings are preserved.

They are empowering to all of us in that ALL of them valued their mental health and were brave enough to seek professional help!

Personal Healing Processes

The women interviewed are all emotionally mature adults. They’re aware of their life situations and the impact of trauma on their well-being. They’ve worked hard to explore and develop life-long skills and methods of managing their emotions. Thus, these are all women who are proactive, sophisticated and intelligent about their emotional healing processes. Before they used EMDR, all of the women had already incorporated many forms of healing into their personal self-care plans.

Their self-care plans included: long-term psychotherapy, journaling, expressive therapies such as art, music and movement, yoga, exercising, gardening, cognitive behavioral therapy, goal setting and medication. One woman indicated she was in so much pain from long-term, severe, past abuse she had seriously discussed electroconsulsive therapy with her psychiatrist. So, when their trusted therapists suggested trying EMDR, specifically designed to treat trauma, all the women agreed.

Personal Perinatal Traumatic Events:

In their own words, the women share their individualized, personal perinatal trauma experiences below.

Birth Trauma:

Kim (not her real name) shares her traumatic birth story:

“My son was born after an easy pregnancy but a complicated birth. I’d very nearly had a vaginal birth; the nurses could see the top of his head, but it was turning to the side each time I pushed. After nearly 2 hours of this, I underwent a c-section because I had spiked a fever and things were not progressing. During my c-section, I was overcome by anxiety and completely paralyzed by fear.

I literally thought I was dying as my son was being born, yet due to the panic, I was unable to verbalize this fear to anyone.

I spent that time shaking and having what I thought were my last panicked thoughts and breaths. It was the the most afraid I’ve ever been in my entire life, and also the most alone I’d felt, despite being surrounded by others.

After the surgery, I wasn’t able to hold my son for 3 hours. I spent the time in recovery, scared that something were wrong and nobody was telling me. I am still not sure of the reason for the delay.

My maternity leave felt long, due to postpartum anxiety and depression and a baby who barely slept and I cried nonstop some days. I felt like a terrible mother who was unable to console her child or enjoy him. I felt tremendous guilt. In addition to the emotional aspects, my c-section scar was not healing properly, so I felt as if I were constantly making a 30-mile trek (newborn in tow) to my ob-gyn’s office for checkups. “

Birth Trauma Layered on Childhood Trauma:

Karen (not her real name) said:

“My very traumatic birth triggered already active memories of severe childhood abuse, parental suicidal attempts in front of me, active alcoholism & substance abuse in the family and severe childhood neglect.”

Helen (not her real name) said:

“I was working on birth trauma at the start of the EMDR, but later on, abuse, illnesses, and marital distress. I was mainly focused on the birth trauma I had experienced when I used EMDR.”

Postpartum Traumatic Event Layered on Childhood Trauma:

Jessica Banas explained her perinatal trauma as such:

“I was traumatized by my childhood with my father. He was very emotionally abusive. Seeing him overdose (on a drug called GHB) the first night my parents were to supposed to have been watching my infant son for me, so I could rest, felt like the ultimate betrayal. Once again, not only were they NOT there for ME, but I had to SAVE them (again) instead!!!”

Women’s Experiences Show Us Moms with PTSD Suffer Co-morbid Perinatal Depression & Anxiety

It is fascinating and sad that all three women with pre-existing trauma stated their prior trauma was re-triggered by a perinatal traumatic event (traumatic birth or other traumatic event postpartum). And all four suffered from severe postpartum depression and anxiety after their traumatic perinatal event. A woman’s mental health is an important aspect of the childbearing year.

As discussed in a previous blog post, one in four women suffers depression at some point in her life, and women are more likely to suffer depression during and shortly after pregnancy than at any other time (Nonacs, 2006). Ruta Nonacs, MD (2011), editor-in-chief of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center of Women’s Mental Health’s website estimates annually in the US, there are about 4 million births, and about 950,000 to 1,000,000 mothers suffer from depression either during or after childbirth every year. 

Having a personal history of a mental illness in her lifetime, such as depression, anxiety, PTS/PTSD, OCD or bipolar disorder (remember, this is whether it was diagnosed & treated or undiagnosed & untreated) increases a woman’s risk of postpartum depression. A previous history of previous postpartum depression increases a woman’s risk of a recurrence to 50 – 80 % risk of recurrent PPD, as compared to a 10- 20% risk factor without having had a prior episode.

It’s important to note that the women’s constellation of PTSD symptoms intensified and they developed severe postpartum depression and anxiety.

Jessica eloquently states how important women’s mental health is to the postpartum period:

” One important symptom of my PTSD that complicated and worsened my PPD was when my infant son would cry and interrupt my ruminations of my father Od-ing. I’d get angry….that would trigger thoughts of wanting to harm my son and cause me great anxiety and incredible guilt…..there were many times I was too afraid if I went to tend to him, I’d treat him harshly, or hurt him This created such a sense of worthlessness and shame, I thought of suicide one night. Instead, I told my husband and we reached out and got help.

It is a very important aspect of PTSD in that I am personally aware how detrimental it is on PPD. My PPD rapidly escalated after getting PTSD. And one seemed to feed on the other. Getting treated for BOTH issues was very important.”

Women’s Experiences Show Us the EMDR Outcomes

Two very positive experiences

Kim’s Experience with Traumatic Birth & Postpartum Anxiety & EMDR

Kim, who suffered from birth trauma and postpartum anxiety, had a positive experience with EMDR. Here is her story of healing.

Kim said that her therapist incorporated EMDR into her current psychotherapy sessions. She said she hadn’t realized that she’d been suffering with PTSD until almost a year after the incident. She says she discovered her anxiety was stemming from a traumatic birth experience at a therapy session:

Kim says:

“…of course I’d had PTSD from thinking I was dying while my son was being born! My anxiety, which had a lot to do with waiting for something terrible to happen to me or my son, started to make sense in light of this new revelation.”

Kim experienced the EMDR itself as calming. She held tappers in her hands while her therapist led her through visualizations. Her therapist warned her that EMDR could be emotionally triggering and if she needed to call her, she was welcome to do so. And it was triggering for Kim. After her first session, she suffered from an anxiety attack and had to call her therapist, and received the help she needed.

Ultimately, Kim’s overall experience with EMDR was emotionally freeing and healing.

She goes on to say:

“Up until the EMDR, I was unable to speak about my c-section at all. I couldn’t see anything related to the birth experience (with or without c-sections involved) on television, either. If I caught a glimpse of a birth on TV, I cried. I had a lot of anxiety on the few occasions I tried to watch A Baby Story on TLC, as a test to see how I felt watching another woman’s experience.

After EMDR a few times, I became more comfortable thinking about and processing my experience, and even eventually talking about it with others. I no longer viewed my scar as something horrible and ugly. Having EMDR gave me back my confidence because it helped me stop seeing myself as a failure (because I needed a c-section instead of birthing vaginally). “

Kim would recommend EMDR to another person trying to recover from trauma, but with some warnings about the emotional response.

Jessica’s Experience of Postpartum Traumatic Event, PPD, Suicidal Ideation & EMDR

Jessica, who experienced the trauma of her father’s overdose while her parents were supposed to be watching her baby, had a positive experience with EMDR. Here is her story of healing:

Jessica said that her therapist incorporated EMDR into her current psychotherapy sessions. Her therapist suggested she try something “new” that would remove the sting of the trauma from her mind. Jessica was skeptical but thought she’d give it a try.

Jessica says:

“The EMDR was pretty much wrapped around by talk therapy in that we’d start out by talking and end up by talking… EMDR took the emotional ties from the traumatic memories away. I no longer find myself reliving any of those memories that were treated with EMDR. I no longer feel any emotional pain from the OD event. I have no loss of sleep, anger, depression, or any anxiety over that event.”

Jessica says she did not find the EMDR emotionally triggering at all, but many childhood memories came flooding back. .

“Not at all…frankly, I thought it was lame at first (wiggling a finger in my face? REALLY?) and had no hope it would have ANY effect at all. Once we (quickly) healed the OD trauma, memories from my childhood did come flooding back! I found that to be very interesting! Fortunately, my childhood was not as terrible as many, so I could handle this phenomenon.”

Jessica recommends EMDR:

“…as long as the person is seeing a well trained, compassionate therapist! EMDR helped me and I have gone on to suggest it to other people who were in pain as I was….those people have been healed by EMDR as well….I find it a useful treatment and extremely non-invasive compared to other treatments!!”

Two very negative experiences

Karen’s Experience with Birth Trauma, Past Trauma, PPD, PPA & EMDR

“My experience was physical and emotional and in both cases negative. I felt physically ill, vertigo, nausea. Disorientation, short-term memory loss, headache. Emotionally, it was detrimental as it brought up my most difficult trauma and I felt completely triggered. I tried to hang in there with the process, but only did a few sessions. The EMDR sessions were not processed with in-between traditional talk therapy sessions. The EMDR made my symptoms worse, my anxiety worse, and the neurological side-effects were horrible. While my therapist did a wonderful job at regrouping,  after we decided to stop doing it, I actually went up on my medications and saw her 2x a week for a while. It was just too much. What I think had happened to me was more resurfacing of old memories that I had compartmentalized in years of talk therapy and medication. I actually think I needed a medication adjustment when I was so desperate for relief. “

Karen would not personally recommend EMDR to another.

Helen’s Experience with Birth Trauma, Past Trauma, Postpartum Mental Health Complications & EMDR

“My therapist suggested the EMDR may be helpful for both traumas (birth and childhood). I had 6 sessions that were each an hour long. Some of this process was also traditional talk therapy in between the EMDR. I found EMDR not helpful in treating my traumas.”

“It was extremely triggering and the therapist pushed me into a lot of it. She would try to help me regroup by taking deep breaths and little breaks in between. But I always felt drained after each session and even more triggered with PTSD.”

Helen would not recommend EMDR for another person:

“I do not think I would personally recommend EMDR to another person for a trauma. I believe the therapist shoved me into it too soon and left me for days swirling in the emotions of that. I have heard it can be wonderful and healing for others. For me, it triggered too much to soon and my experienced left me more traumatized. I can’t think of those (EMDR) coping skills and techniques without feeling overwhelmed with memories.” 

Conclusions

As we can see from real women’s experiences, EMDR was extremely triggering to two of the women, but resolved emotional distress well for the two other women. Again we are reminded that one size does not fit all when it comes to treating mental health.

The women’s experiences indicated that when working with EMDR for trauma, even experienced and trusted therapists encountered strong triggering responses in their clients. In these instances, these therapists needed to know how to appropriately re-group and therapeutically support their clients either in the session and/or be appropriately available outside of scheduled sessions.

It was not appropriate for a therapist to urge a client to try or keep using EMDR if the client did not really want to, or if the client was having an overall non-therapeutic effect.

As we can see from these real women’s experiences, the treatment of post-traumatic stress has the potential to be devastating to the client as far as awakening or re-triggering compartmentalized past emotional distress.

In this small article and small example, it is interesting to me that the four women who volunteered to share their stories in this small had extreme reactions to EMDR, none neutral. These results reinforce my usual conservative approach to managing emotional distress, that is, if one is suffering from debilitating mental and emotional distress, it is best to consult with a licensed professional.

What I find empowering about these interviews is that ALL of these women VALUED their mental health and were brave enough to seek help. Fight the stigma! Don’t be afraid to get help!

Author’s Note: None of these women were or are my clients. I sought out non-clients for the purpose of these interviews.

References

Nonacs, R. (2006). A deeper shade of blue. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Birth Trauma, Cesarean Birth, Childbirth Education, Depression, Do No Harm, EMDR, Evidence Based Medicine, Maternal Mental Health, Perinatal Mood Disorders, Postpartum Depression, Pregnancy Complications, PTSD, Research, Trauma work , , , , , , , ,

The Unexpected Project: Pre-eclampsia Researched, Revealed and Reviewed. Part II of an interview with Jennifer Carney

February 7th, 2013 by avatar

By: Walker Karraa

Regular contributor Walker Karraa wraps up her interview with Jennifer Carney, who became active with The Preeclampsia Foundation and the Unexpected Project after suffering from eclampsia while pregnant with her second child.  Have you had to answer any questions in your classes or with your clients and patients after the recent episode of Downton Abbey, where one of the characters developed eclampsia?  What have you shared with your pregnant families? Part one of Walker’s interview with Jennifer Carney can be found here. – Sharon Muza, Community Manager.  

Walker: What do you see are the common myths regarding pre-eclampsia?

JC: Common myths? Oh, there are so many. A lot of people seem to think they know what causes preeclampsia and how to cure it. There’s a whole faction of advocates who buy into the work of Dr. Tom Brewer, who in the 1960′s, devised a very high protein diet for mothers based on the idea that preeclampsia is caused by malnutrition. This isn’t supported by the current research, but it gets repeated all the time. Other people argue that preeclampsia is a so-called “lifestyle” disease – caused by obesity and poor prenatal care. Obesity is a risk factor, but it is only one of many and poor prenatal care can cause the disease to go undetected, but it will not cause it to happen in the first place. There are also a lot of people who think that the delivery of the baby will end the risk to the mother – and while it’s true that the removal of the placenta is essential, preeclampsia or eclampsia can still happen up to 6 weeks after delivery. There are other myths, but it strikes me that so many of these myths are rooted in a desire to control pregnancy. If we can blame preeclampsia on one central cause or on the women who develop it themselves, then we can reassure ourselves that we won’t develop it, too. There are risk factors that can increase a woman’s chances of developing the disease, but women without any known risk factors have developed it, too.

It’s not comforting to think that no one is safe, but with knowledge of the signs and symptoms – a woman can react to it promptly and receive the care that she needs. But this will only happen if women get the information and understand that it CAN happen to them. I am blown away by the ways in which preeclampsia and other serious complications are downplayed and dismissed in pregnancy books, online and even by some medical practitioners. Preeclampsia CAN happen to you – but you can deal with it IF you know the signs and the symptoms.

Walker: Can you share with our readers what you are doing with Anne Garrett Addison at The Unexpected Project?

JC: The Unexpected Project is a documentary, website, and book project that will examine the rate of maternal deaths and near-misses in the United States. Anne Garrett Addison, who founded the Preeclampsia Foundation, and I are both classified as near-misses due to preeclampsia. With Unexpected, we want to take a look at all maternal deaths regardless of the cause – preeclampsia, amniotic fluid embolism, hemorrhage, placenta previa, placental abruption, infection, suicide, and any other causes. We also want to look at the women who survived these complications because the line between surviving and dying is in these cases, often quite thin. Every case is different and there is no one factor to blame for the maternal death rate in the US. We will look at interventions and cesarean sections, but we will also look at the lack of information available to women and the tendency of some birth activists to minimize the dangers of serious birth complications.

Current Preeclampsia/Eclampsia StatisticsMaternal mortality and morbidity are, unfortunately, a part of the pregnancy and childbirth experience for women and their families in the US and the world.  While most (99%) of maternal mortalities occur in the developing world, the 1% that occur in developed countries like the US are still of concern to maternity care providers and advocates.  Indeed, U.S. still ranks 50th in the world for its maternal mortality rate (1).

More common than a maternal death, are severe short- or long-term morbidities due to obstetric complications (2).  Some estimate that unexpected complications occur in up to 15% of women who are otherwise healthy at term (2).  

In particular, hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, including elevated blood pressure, preeclampsia, eclampsia and HELLP syndrome are estimated to affect 12-22% of pregnant women and their babies worldwide each year. (3)  Adverse neonatal outcomes are higher for infants born to women with pregnancies complicated by hypertension.  

In the U.S., upwards of 8 percent or 300,000 pregnant or postpartum women develop preeclampsia or the related condition, HELLP syndrome each year. This number is growing as more women enter pregnancy already hypertensive (cite).  Preeclampsia is still a leading cause of pregnancy-related death in the US and one of the most preventable.  Annually, approximately 300 women die and another 75,000 women experience “near misses” – severe complications and injury such as organ failure, massive blood loss, permanent disability, and premature birth or death of their babies.  Usually, the disease resolves with the birth of the baby and placenta. But, it can occur postpartum–indeed, most maternal deaths occur after delivery.

Recent statistics from Christine Morton, PhD.

The trend toward “normal” or “natural” birth does not seem to allow a lot of space for our stories to be heard or to be told. This has the effect of making survivors feel marginalized – as though their experience is somehow too far outside “normal” to be a part of the overall conversation. The one constant of all of our stories is that none of us expected to become statistics. Our birth plans did not include emergency cesarean sections, seizures, ICUs, blood transfusions, strokes, hysterectomies, CPR, prematurity, PTSD, depression, or death. No one was more surprised than us. This isn’t about assigning blame – this is about finding answers, improving birth for ALL moms to come, and learning to live with the unexpected.

Walker: How did you get involved with researching for the Preeclampsia Foundation?

JC: I started out volunteering with the March of Dimes in the spring following my son’s birth. I started a walk team and raised money, hoping that I would be able to meet other moms who had been through something similar. I felt very alone in the months following his birth. I was dealing with postpartum depression (PPD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and struggling to feel normal again. I had a premature infant – which meant sleeping through the night was a problem for a long time. When I returned to work, I was greeted by a coworker who declared that she now no longer wanted to have children because of what I had gone through. This weighed heavily on me – and I felt like I was the cautionary tale, the one bad pregnancy story that everyone knows. I know I had never heard a story as bad as mine – so I felt deflated, flattened by the whole thing.

With the March of Dimes, I found moms to help me deal with the preemie part of it. As he matured and grew out of the preemie issues, I found that I still had a lot of issues to deal with regarding my own health – both physically and mentally. I decided to volunteer with the Preeclampsia Foundation after they merged with the HELLP Syndrome Society.  The Preeclampsia Foundation is much smaller than the March of Dimes, which allowed me to be much more active as a volunteer. I was able to use my writing and editing skills to work on the newsletter – and when I suggested that someone do a review of the available pregnancy literature based on how well they cover preeclampsia, I was given the opportunity to conduct that research and write the report myself. This was something I had been doing informally in bookstores for a while anyway, so it felt good to be able to look at the literature and confirm that the information really is severely lacking if not downright misleading in a large number of so-called comprehensive books. It really isn’t my fault that I missed the symptoms.

This year, I am coordinating the Orange County, California Promise Walk in Irvine as part of the foundation’s main fundraising campaign on May 18. I am hoping to bring a mental health expert from the California Maternal Mental Health Collaborative out to the walk to talk to the moms about dealing with the emotional impact of their birth experiences.  Many of these moms lost babies, delivered preemies, or suffered severe health issues of their own. Our community as a whole is at a very high risk for mental health issues, myself included.

It wasn’t until this year – 6 years after the birth of my son – that I finally sought professional help dealing with the PTSD from the very difficult birth experience. I feel that the volunteer work helped fill that spot for the past 6 years and brought me to the point where I can now process the trauma in a healthy way. I am not happy that I had eclampsia, but I am beyond grateful for all of the great people that it has indirectly brought into my life.

Closing Thoughts

To have to wait 6 years to receive the vital treatment for PTSD is a travesty. We are so thankful that Jennifer survived both the initial trauma, but endured its legacy of traumatic stress that lingers today. Unfortunately, PTSD subsequent to traumatic childbirth is growing in prevalence, and under-recognized by the majority of women’s health and maternity care providers.  I have learned a great deal from Jennifer and look forward to the work she and her colleagues will continue to do for the benefit of all women.

References

1.  WHO. Trends in maternal mortality: 1990 to 2008 estimates developed by WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and The World Bank, World Health Organization 2010, Annex 1. 2010. http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2010/9789241500265_eng.pdf. Last accessed:January 3, 2011.

2. Guise, J-M.  Anticipating and responding to obstetric emergencies.  Best Practice and Research Clinical Obstetrics and Gynaecology. 2007; 21 (4): 625-638

3. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Diagnosis and management of preeclampsia and eclampsia; ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 33. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2002;99:159-167. 

 

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Midwifery Organizations Band Together in Support of Normal Physiologic Birth

July 27th, 2012 by avatar

In May of this year, three leading midwifery organizations, American College of Nurse Midwives (ACNM), Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA) and National Association of Certified Professional Midwives (NACPM) jointly released a statement titled “Supporting Healthy and Normal Physiologic Childbirth; A Consensus Statement by ACNM, MANA and NACPM,“ intended for health care professionals and policymakers.  This strongly worded statement supports healthy and normal physiologic childbirth for for U.S. women. It is logical that the three main U.S. midwifery organizations coordinated in preparing this statement, as midwives are the gatekeepers of normal birth for low risk women.   The purpose of the consensus statement, which was developed by a joint task force appointed from members of the three midwifery organizations was to:

  • Provide a succinct definition of normal physiologic birth;
  • Identify measurable benchmarks to describe optimal processes and outcomes reflective of normal physiologic birth;
  • Identify factors that facilitate or disrupt normal physiologic birth based on the best available evidence;
  • Create a template for system changes through clinical practice, education, research, and health policy; and
  • Ultimately improve the health of mothers and infants, while avoiding unnecessary and costly interventions.

A normal physiologic labor and birth is one that is powered by the innate human capacity of the woman and fetus. This birth is more likely to be safe and healthy because there is no unnecessary intervention that disrupts normal physiologic processes.  Some women and/or fetuses will develop complications that warrante medical attention to assure safe and healthy outcomes.  However, supporting the normal physiologic processes of labor and birth, even in the presence of such complications, has the potential to enhance best outcomes for mother and infant.

These three organizations recognize the current state of U.S. maternity care and acknowledge how technology and interventions are being commonly used despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting routine applications. (Sakala, 2008.)  Some of the interventions cited including pitocin being used to induce or augment more than half of all pregnant women’s labors. (Declercq, Sakala, 2006.)  The cesarean rate in the United States is more than 33%. (Martin,Hamilton, Ventura 2011.) This cesarean rate is not without risks for both mothers and babies with the original cesarean birth but also recognizes the complications to subsequent pregnancies and birth.  The organizations also commented that women who have perceived their birth or the care they received as traumatic or disrespectful are more likely to develop postpartum mood disorders and potentially difficulty in establishing healthy mother-infant attachment. (Beck, 2004), (Beck, Watson, 2008), (Beck, 2006).

The consensus statement goes on to state the characteristics of normal physiologic birth;

  • is characterized by spontaneous onset and progression of labor;
  • includes biological and psychological conditions that promote effective labor;
  • results in the vaginal birth of of the infant and placenta;
  • results in physiological blood loss,
  • facilitates optimal newborn transition through skin-to-skin contact and keeping the mother and infant together during the postpartum period; and
  • supports early initiation of breastfeeding. (World Health Organization 1996).

When I was reading the above list, as outlined by the World Health Organization and cited in the consensus statement,  I was stuck by how these statements are in sync with Lamaze International’s Healthy Birth Practices.  I was also a bit discouraged that these statements, published by WHO in 1996 sometimes still seem a distant goal.

There are factors that interfere with the normal physiologic process, including many that you may be very familiar with; induction or augmentation of labor, lack of a supportive environment, time limits on labor, denial of food and drink, pain medications, episiotomies, vacuum or forceps assisted deliveries, cesareans, immediate cord clamping, separation of the new mother from her newborn and finally, a situation that may feel threatening or unsupportive to the mother.

The consensus statement recognizes the numerous short-term and long-term health implications of normal birth to the mother-baby dyad.  Allowing labor and birth to unfold without interference permits labor and birth hormones to work effectively, thereby reducing the need for the familiar “cascade of interventions.”

For most women, the short-term benefits of normal physiologic birth include emerging from childbirth feeling physically and emotionally healthy and powerful as mothers…A focus on these aspects of normal physiologic birth will help to change the current discourse on childbirth as an illness state where authority resides external to the woman to one of wellness in which women and clinicians share decisions and accountability. (Kennedy, Nardini, McLeod-Waldo, 2009).

When women enter motherhood from a position of strength and confidence, babies benefit, families benefit and society benefits.  Multiple factors for the woman, the clinician and the birthing environment help to promote women birthing without intervention.  All three sides of an important triad need to share equal responsibility in meeting this goal.

The consensus statement indicates that education plays a role in helping women obtain a normal physiologic birth.  The role of the childbirth educator cannot be underestimated.  Sharing the values of Lamaze and the Lamaze Healthy Birth Practices is right in line with the midwifery statement.

ACNM, MANA and NACPM go on to encourage hospital policies to be set that support normal birth, the recognition that care practices need to be evidenced based.  Midwifery care is a “key strategy” in that direction.  Education of clinicians on care practices that promote physiologic birth and furthering research on the effects of normal birth, among other things.

This consensus statement is clear and powerful in demonstrating that our mothers and babies deserve, depend on and require the opportunity to birth without interventions and that everyone will benefit as a result, in the absence of medical complications or medical need.  I look forward to policy changes, increased accessibility of mothers to midwives and the midwifery model of care and collaboration of all health care providers, both doctors and midwives, to promote practices that result in an increase in normal physiologic birth.

Take a moment to read the entire consensus statement and let me know what you think?  A step in the right direction?  What comes next?  Do you think it is exciting that these three organizations have worked together to come out with this bold challenge to make change? What do you do in your childbirth classes or with the women you work with to promote these values represented by the consensus statement.  Would you add anything else?   I welcome your discussion in our comments section. – SM

 Sources

Beck CT. Birth trauma: in the eye of the beholder. Nurs Res. 2004; 53(1):28-35.

Beck CT, Watson S. The impact of birth trauma on breastfeeding: a tale of two pathways. Nurs Res. 2008; 57(4):228-236.

Beck CT. The anniversary of birth trauma: failure to rescue. Nurs Res. 2006; 55(6): 381-390.

Beck CT.Post-traumatic stress disorder due to childbirth:the aftermath.NursRes, 2004; 53(4):216-224.

Declercq ER, Sakala C, Corry MP, et al. Listening to mothers II: Report of the Second National U.S. Survey of Women’s Childbearing Experiences. New York: Childbirth Connection; 2006.

Kennedy HP, Nardini K, McLeod-Waldo R, et al. Top-selling childbirth advice books: a discourse analysis. Birth. 2009;36(4):318-324.

Martin JA, Hamilton BE, Ventura SJ, et al. Births: preliminary data for 2010. Natl Vital Stat Rep. 2011; 60(2):1-25.

Sakala C, Corry MP. Evidence-based maternity care: what it is and what it can achieve. New York, NY: Milbank Memorial Fund; 2008.

World Health Organization. Care in Normal Birth: A Practical Guide. World Health Organization; 1996.

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Pain, Suffering, and Trauma in Labor and Subsequent Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: First of Two Posts by Penny Simkin, PT, CCE, CD(DONA)

February 15th, 2011 by avatar

Science & Sensibility welcomes new contributor, Penny Simkin, PT, CCE, CD(DONA).  Thank you for sharing your decades-long experience and expertise with us!



Introduction
After the health of mother and baby, labor pain is the greatest concern of women, their partners, and their caregivers. Nurses and doctors promise little or no pain when their medications are used, and feel frustrated and disappointed if a woman has pain. Most are also extremely uncomfortable with her expressions of pain during labor—moans, crying, tension, frustration – because they don’t know how to help her, except to give her medication.

An enormous industry exists in North America to manufacture and safely deliver pain relieving medications for labor. Hospital maternity departments are designed with elimination of pain as a primary consideration, complete with numerous interventions and protocols to keep the pain management medications from causing serious harm. When staff believe that labor pain equals suffering, they convey that belief to the woman and her partner, and, instead of offering support and guidance for comfort, they offer pain medication. If that’s the only option, women will grasp for it.

This brings me to the topic of my blog post today – Pain, Suffering, and Trauma in Labor.

Definitions of Pain and Suffering
If we check the definitions of “pain” and “suffering” in lay dictionaries, the two are often offered as synonyms of one another, which helps explain the fear of labor pain. It’s a fear of suffering. But if we consult the scientific literature, there is a distinction among pain, suffering and trauma. As described in Lowe’s fine paper on the nature of labor pain (1), pain has been defined as, “an unpleasant sensory or emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” (2) The emphasis is on the physical origins of pain.

Lowe also points out that “suffering,” can be distinguished from pain, in that by definition, it describes negative emotional reactions, and includes any of these: perceived threat to body and/or psyche; helplessness and  loss of control; distress; inability to cope with the distressing situation; fear of death of mother or baby. If we think about it, one can have pain without suffering and suffering without pain. We can all recall times when we have been in pain, but did not fear damage or death to ourselves or others, nor did we feel unable to cope with the pain. For many people, athletic effort, recovery from planned surgery, dental work, and labor are painful but these people do not suffer with them. This is because the person has enough modifiers (knowledge, attention to other matters or goals, companionship, reassurance, touch, self-help measures, feelings of safety and other positive factors) to keep her from interpreting the experience as painful. All pain is not suffering.

By the same token, I’m sure we can recall times when we have suffered without pain. Acute worry or anguish about oneself or a loved one, death of a loved one, cruel or insensitive treatment, deep shame, extreme fear, loneliness, depression, and other negative emotions do not necessarily include real or potential physical damage, but certainly cause suffering. Therefore, all suffering is not due to pain. In fact, it is these negative modifiers that turn labor pain into suffering.

Of course, the goal of childbirth education has always been to reduce the negative modifiers, and increase the positive ones. The goal of anesthesiology has been to remove awareness of pain, in the assumption that when there is little or no pain, there will be no suffering. I’ll get back to that point later in Part 2 of this blog.

Suffering and Trauma
According to the American Psychiatric Association, the definition of trauma comes very close to the definition of suffering. “Trauma” involves experiencing or witnessing an event in which there is actual or perceived death or serious injury, or threat to the physical integrity of self or others, and/or the person’s response included fear, helplessness, or horror. (3)  Neither suffering nor trauma necessarily includes actual physical damage, although it may do so.

One’s perception of the event is what defines it as traumatic or not. As it pertains to childbirth, “Birth trauma is in the eye of the beholder” (4), and whether others would agree is irrelevant to the diagnosis.

Birth trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after childbirth
A traumatic birth includes suffering and may lead to PTSD, which (according to the APA) means that the sufferer has at least 3 of the following symptoms that continue for at least one month:

  • nightmares
  • flashbacks
  • fears of recurrence
  • staying away from the people or location involved
  • avoiding circumstances in which, it can happen again
  • amnesia
  • emotional numbing
  • panic attacks
  • emotional distress

One national survey found that 18% of almost 1000 new mothers (up to 18 months after childbirth) reported traumatic births, as assessed by the PTSD Symptom Scale, a highly respected diagnostic tool. Half of these women (9% of the sample) had high enough scores to be diagnosed with PTSD after childbirth. (5)

Other smaller surveys (using women’s reports as the criteria for diagnosis) have found that between 25% and 33% of women report that their births were traumatic. Of these, between 12% and 24% developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In other words, between 3% and 9% of all women surveyed developed PTSD after Childbirth.(6–9)

As we can see, every woman who has a traumatic birth does not go on to develop the full syndrome of PTSD. If they have fewer symptoms than the three or more required for the diagnosis, they may be described as having PTS Effects (PTSE). Though disturbing, the women are more likely to recover spontaneously over time than those with PTSD. The question of why some women get PTSD and others do not is intriguing and multifactorial: the propensity to develop post birth PTSD has to do with how they felt they were treated in labor; whether they felt in control; whether they panicked or felt angry during labor; whether they dissociated; whether they suffered “mental defeat;” (that is they gave up, feeling overwhelmed, hopeless and as if they couldn’t go on) (9, 10). Another risk factor for developing birth related PTSD  is having a history of unresolved physical, sexual and/or emotional trauma from earlier in their lives.  Even though unresolved previous trauma is unlikely to be healed during pregnancy, most of the other variables associated with PTSD can be prevented “through care in labor that enhances perceptions of control and support” (9).

In Part 2 of this blog post, I will suggest practical ways to apply what we know about the risk factors for childbirth-related PTSD, and how we can address these  before, during, and after childbirth.  I will discuss prevention and reduction strategies which can collectively reduce the likelihood of traumatic childbirth and subsequent PTSD.

This blog post series will be featured in the Fall 2011 issue of the Journal of Perinatal Education.  For references, please contact Ms. Simkin directly at: penny@pennysimkin.com or reference the JPE issue:  Summer 2011 Volume 20, Number 3.

 

Post By: Penny Simkin, PT, CCE, CD(DONA)

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