I had two great births, so I know how positive the experience can be. But I also know I was lucky. In my work as a therapist, I’ve heard plenty of women tell terrifying stories. For some, it was a complete nightmare. Others mostly coped with the experience but still feel disappointed.
Unfortunately, having a bad birth is common. Some research shows that as many as one in three new moms describe their births as traumatic. And anywhere from 2 to 9 percent of women meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder after childbirth.
The thing is, even if you’ve had a bad birth before, it doesn’t mean you will again. There’s a lot you can do to stack the deck in your favor to have an amazing birth.
As a birth skills specialist and therapist, I try to facilitate a shift in women from fear to confidence. If you feel anxious about your next birth, don’t tuck those scary thoughts away and hope for the best. The choices you make during pregnancy can put you in the right lane for an empowering birth.
Here's what I recommend:
1. Get educated about your body.
Attend a prenatal class that will give you and your partner new skills, including better positions for birth and natural pain relief.
A bad previous experience can make you doubt your birthing capacity. But a positive class will give you insights about your brilliant body and can dispel myths like, "Your pelvis was too small." Fact: Nature generally makes babies the right size for your body. Many women birth bigger babies with greater ease the second time around.
2. Choose a care provider who respects you.
Birth trauma often results from disrespectful care. And if you've had a poor experience in the past, you may have lost faith in doctors and midwives. Be reassured, there are many wonderful care providers out there — so spend the time finding the right person for you.
When interviewing potential midwives or obstetricians, ask yourself, “Does she treat me like a patient or a person?" “Where is the power in this relationship?” and “Is he kind?” Trust your gut instinct.
3. Consider hiring a doula.
A doula remains with you throughout the birth and provides an extra layer of protection and caring, including helping to manage pain and offering encouragement. She is there to empower you and your partner.
Research shows that mothers who use doulas tend to have less intervention and have better birth outcomes. Even if you're having a C-section, extra support is still important.
4. Explore gentle C-section options.
When a planned C-section is likely, there are still ways to have a gentle birth. Discuss the following possibilities with your doctor: having the screen down, delaying cord clamping, choosing your own music, having skin-to-skin contact with your baby as soon as possible, and allowing verbal guidance and support from a midwife.
5. Find a space that speaks to you.
Look for a birth place that respects your aspirations. When choosing a hospital, imagine that your room is a hotel suite where you can be yourself and celebrate a special private birthday. It's not a place for uninvited guests — make sure you've planned out who will be in the room ahead of time.
6. Practice using the power of your mind.
I recommend learning to use visualization — like imagining a color around you, a flower opening up inside, or being in a calm place in nature — to take you in the direction of the birth you want.
I also find that affirmations — like saying "yes" to every contraction — can help create a more empowering experience.
7. Seek out positive birth stories.
Unfortunately, people seem to talk loudly about bad births and quietly about great ones. I recommend hanging out with women who feel good about birth, whether that's in person or online. There is nothing quite like feel-good birth stories to make you feel empowered. Two of my favorite resources: the book Ina May's Guide to Childbirth and the blog Birth Without Fear.
And if you've previously had a bad birth, make peace with it before contractions begin again. You can’t change what happened, but you can change how you feel about it. One of the most healing things you can do is to share your bad birth story with a compassionate listener who understands (not a first-time pregnant mother). You can also visit a skilled therapist who can help you reframe the memory and get your power back.
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