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What is Birth Trauma?

Birth trauma can be used to describe a couple of things...

  • Negative feelings associates with a birth experience, which can impact postnatal mental health and breastfeeding initiation (Davis & Sclafani, 2022). Even if birth had no complications, if mom perceives something as negative about the experience, it's trauma.

  • Birth trauma can also refer to medical interventions or complications during birth, that are traumatic for baby- getting breastfeeding off to a rough start.

It is important to be aware of birth trauma and understand how it can impact mom and baby, because 34% of new mothers report experiencing a traumatic birth (Beck & Watson, 2008). Being prepared for the unexpected, having a supportive birth team, and knowing who your resources are in the community can be reassuring.

Birth Trauma Can Impact Mother

The impact of birth trauma on maternal mental health. A mother may experience feelings of mistreatment, fear, loss of dignity, or control during labor. There may be feelings of sadness over not having the birth you hoped for. These feelings are real, and it is important to process your birth story- whether with loved one, in a support group, or with a mental health professional. The trauma can feel even more overwhelming if breastfeeding challenges arise. And since infant birth trauma increases the risk of feeding challenges, it is all the more important to have the support of family and birth professionals.

When Birth Trauma Impacts Feeding

Birth is a highly interactive process between mom and baby's bodies. Baby uses a series of cardinal movements designed to move them down the birth canal in response to uterine contractions. I often talk about how this helps baby "turn on all the lights in the house". If birth does not engage baby's reflexes, there may be sensory processing differences that make for a highly sensitive baby, and disorganized feeding skills. Therapy and/or bodywork can be hugely beneficial.

Additionally, birth trauma can lead to baby having a "stiff neck", making it difficulty for them to turn their head. This is a condition called torticollis, which has a higher incidence for babies with birth trauma. A baby who cannot turn their head to both directions with ease will have a breast preference, and/or require compensations to latch to the non-preferred side. The pull on their neck pulls oral structures out of alignment, and can also interfere with feeding reflexes. There is a 2% incidence of  torticollis in traumatic deliveries compared to 0.3% in non-traumatic deliveries (Hsieh et al, 2000). In an article by Gundrathi et al, 2023, 19.5% babies with compromised in utero positioning presented with torticollis, and 56% babies with forceps or suction intervention. It is important to catch it early, as this can mean a shorter course of treatment. Red Flags for Infant Birth Trauma & Feeding Challenges

  • Use of vacuum or forceps

  • Large for gestational age

  • Prolonged pushing stage

  • Precipitous or fast labor

  • Cord wrapped around the body

  • In Utero Position: breech, asynclitic, posterior occiput

  • Brachial plexus injury

  • Premature

  • Multiples

Professional Resources

All expectant/new mamas and babies benefit from lactation support and bodywork. However, if your pregnancy is high risk for complications, I strongly recommend having a team in place to ease your postpartum transition. Providers and community resources to seek out could include..

  • IBCLC Lactation Consultant

  • SLP/OT Feeding Therapist

  • Whole Body Therapist (OT, PT, SLP)

  • Bodywork (Chiropractor, CST, Infant Massage)

  • Mental Health Counselor

  • Support Group

  • Our Bodywork for Breastfeeding play group (the first Tuesday of every month)!

References Beck CT, Watson S. Impact of birth trauma on breast-feeding: a tale of two pathways. Nurs Res. 2008 Jul-Aug;57(4):228-36.

Davis AMB, Sclafani V. Birth Experiences, Breastfeeding, and the Mother-Child Relationship: Evidence from a Large Sample of Mothers. Can J Nurs Res. 2022 Dec;54(4):518-529.

Jalaja Gundrathi; Bruno Cunha; Magda D. Mendez. (2023). Congenital torticollis. National Institute of Health.

Wiberg & Nilsson (2000). Infants with colic may have had a faster delivery: a short, preliminary report,

Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, Volume 23, Issue 3, 2000, Pages 208-210.

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