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Study shows birth trauma can impact new mothers' ability to breastfeed

by Colin Poitras - October 20, 2008

Up to a third of all new mothers report suffering through a traumatic child birth.

For some – believed to be up to 9 percent – the birth is such a traumatic event that they experience posttraumatic stress disorder, the same debilitating disorder that scars the lives of combat veterans and victims of rape and other violent crimes.

This frightening and debilitating disorder can cause women to abandon their aspirations for future children, damage their ability to bond with their babies, and leave them permanently psychologically scarred.

Cheryl Tatano Beck, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Nursing, is one of the country’s leading experts on posttraumatic stress disorder and childbirth. She has spent the past 20 years studying postpartum depression mood and anxiety disorders.

In her latest findings, Beck has found that birth trauma can have an adverse impact on some women’s ability to breastfeed.

Working closely with the Trauma and Birth Stress charitable trust in Auckland, New Zealand, Beck evaluated the detailed responses of 52 mothers who participated in her research project.

Her results showed that the impact of birth trauma can lead new mothers down two strikingly different paths with regard to breastfeeding.

For some, the trauma propels them into persevering in breastfeeding to prove their “success” as a mother and perhaps to make up to their infant for the difficult birth.

As one mother in Beck’s study who had had an emergency Caesarean said, “Breastfeeding became my focus for overcoming the birth and proving to everyone else and mostly to myself that there was something that I could do right. It was part of my crusade, so to speak, to prove myself as a mother.”

Yet for others, birth trauma sets in motion a chain of events – intrusive flashbacks, detachment from their child, and physical pain – that can curtail their attempts to breastfeed.

Cheryl Beck, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Nursing
Cheryl Beck, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Nursing Photo by Thomas Hurlbut

A first-time mother who had induced labor followed by a failed vacuum extraction and a Caesarean delivery wrote, “When I breastfed my baby, I felt like it was one more invasion upon my body and I couldn’t handle that after the labor I suffered. Whenever I put her to the breast, I wanted to scream and vomit at the same time. After a horrible eight weeks, I made the decision to stop breastfeeding.”

Another first-time mother who endured a long, painful labor in which the epidural did not work and who ended up with a forceps delivery stated: “I had flashbacks to the birth every time I would feed him. When he was put on me in the hospital, he wasn’t breathing and he was blue. I kept picturing this … Breastfeeding was a similar position … I would get really upset and cry when I fed him, which would cause my baby to cry.”

Beck concludes that intensive one-on-one support for traumatized mothers may be necessary to help them establish breastfeeding. Sensitivity and awareness by medical professionals of the traumatized mother’s needs may also be helpful.

During the postpartum period, it is suggested that healthcare providers be attentive to the symptoms that may indicate a new mother is traumatized, such as being withdrawn, having a dazed look, or suffering temporary amnesia.

Beck’s latest research study: “Impact of Birth Trauma on Breastfeeding – A Tale of Two Pathways,” which appears in the July/August 2008 issue of Nursing Research, was co-authored by Sue Watson, chairperson of the Trauma and Birth Stress charitable trust.

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