Ask DadPad, Labour and Birth, Mental Health
Ask DadPad: Can dads experience birth trauma?
Posted on 21st July 2023
This week is Birth Trauma Awareness Week, an annual event aimed at raising awareness of the condition. To find out more about birth trauma, and also the work of their charity, we spoke to some of the key team members at the Birth Trauma Association (BTA). We also dug out some useful online sources of information, both to help inform this blog post and to share with you if you wanted to find out more for yourself.
Research from 2022 suggests that somewhere around 4.7% of mums experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 12.3% have post-traumatic stress (PTSS) in relation to childbirth. Further, some 1.2% of dads experience PTSD and 1.3% PTSS following childbirth. It’s therefore a condition which is affecting a lot of families and it’s important that more of us are not only aware of it, but know what to do and where to go to seek help.
There are a variety of different names used to describe the situation of experiencing psychological problems following childbirth – such as full-blown PTSD or other trauma-related symptoms – and it’s also useful to distinguish between PTSD (etc) which has been triggered by childbirth but which relates to a traumatic event previously experienced (such as a sexual assault) and that which has been caused by childbirth itself. This means that some of us may, due to things that have happened before, be more vulnerable to birth trauma than others, although Dr Kim Thomas from the Birth Trauma Association (BTA) has said that – in the context of women – most of those “who experience birth trauma have no particular background that predisposes them to the condition. It can happen to women of any age, ethnicity or social class.“
The NHS describe PTSD as "an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events" and a person with PTSD "often relives the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks, and may experience feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt."
What is birth trauma, and how might it affect me?
The BTA website provides a helpful overview of what birth trauma is. They describe it as “a shorthand phrase for PTSD and other symptoms of psychological distress after birth.” In other words, it’s not just limited to those who have developed full-blown PTSD, so don’t ever hold back from seeking support just because you believe your symptoms are not ‘serious’ enough.
PTSD and related symptoms can arise as a result of any traumatic event – either in terms of experiencing it first-hand (such as being the person giving birth) or by witnessing it (such as being the birth partner – or even the health professional supporting the birth).
As a partner, there are two main ways in which birth trauma can affect you:
- If baby’s mum has developed PTSD herself following a traumatic birth, trying to support her can be quite difficult; and/or
- You may develop PTSD or similar symptoms yourself, as a result of being present at the birth, especially if you felt in fear of either your partner or your baby dying
Dr Kim Thomas explains further:
At the Birth Trauma Association, we support parents who have been affected by traumatic birth – either they’ve had a traumatic birth themselves, or they’ve witnessed a partner’s traumatic birth. Although most of the focus, both from health professionals and family, tends to be on the mother’s trauma, we know that dads and partners can be badly affected, too. In many cases this is because they are having to support – both practically and emotionally – a woman who has been severely affected by her experience. She may have physical injuries, or she may be frightened, angry and upset about the experience and unable to forget it. Some women may even have PTSD. Often, partners feel at a loss about how to support a woman experiencing this degree of distress, and they have nowhere to turn for help or advice.
There are other cases where the father himself is seriously affected psychologically. Witnessing your partner go through a frightening experience and fearing that you might be about to lose her or your baby can be intensely traumatising. The 1% of dads that develop PTSD themselves after birth amounts to around 6,000 dads a year in the UK, but their experience is largely overlooked by the health system.
This last bit might sound a little depressing, but the good news is that the BTA are working hard to address this – as you’ll see further below…
How do I know if I am experiencing birth trauma symptoms?
The BTA website sets out four main symptoms to be alert for – which we’ve summarised below:
- Flashbacks to the traumatic event – perhaps via nightmares or intrusive memories – which cause you to feel panicked or distressed;
- Avoiding anything which reminds you of the trauma;
- Being extremely irritable, anxious or jumpy – as well as on high alert for things which might cause harm to your baby;
- Feeling low, depressed, unhappy or guilty.
It might also be helpful to hear from the experiences of some real-life dads who’ve also experienced birth trauma. For example, Scott Mair from Fathers’ Network Scotland told us (when he spoke to us for a guest blog back in 2021):
It’s not always immediately that you react to what has happened to you; it can take time and it’s hard to appreciate what you are experiencing. For me, it was a few months later, when everyone and everything else started going back to normal, but I wasn’t. I was over-anxious and having intrusive thoughts; unable to sleep, very irritable and withdrawn; blaming myself and convincing myself that no one else would understand, as dads don’t experience this. I was told to stay strong for my wife and children, so I felt ashamed that I wasn’t strong enough, as we are programmed to believe that a father is supposed to be a pillar of strength.
Other men who have spoken about their birth trauma experiences include Elliott Rae, of Music Football and Fatherhood, who has noted that he experienced insomnia, anxiety and flashbacks that could occur at any time of the day or night, and Mark Williams, fathers’ mental health campaigner:
Looking back to my own experience, I remember having my first ever panic attack at the birth of my son. I remember feeling very anxious and panicky. I really didn’t know what was happening. I was terrified that both my wife and baby could die. The feelings that I felt at the birth of my son still affect me these days. When I think about my wife being pregnant again, I have strong feelings of anxiety and panic. I even get anxious when looking at newborn babies, as it brings back the thoughts and feelings that I had on that day.
If you wanted to find out more about the experiences of any of these three men, try Googling their names – all three have written and spoken extensively about their birth trauma, PTSD and mental health experiences.
Where can I go for help if I think I might need it?
As with any mental health struggles that you might experience during the perinatal period, our Where do I go to access help for my mental health? blog is a good place to start.
The BTA website also has information specifically written for and focused on dads and partners who have also experienced a traumatic birth.
As well as a downloadable leaflet – Fathers and partners: Coping with a traumatic birth – there is also a specific Fathers/Partners webpage which contains a selection of birth stories from real dads who have experienced birth trauma – these may help you feel less alone and/or recognise similarities in your experiences.
The webpage also contains specific advice for those trying to support their partner after she has suffered a traumatic birth, in addition to some introductory information on whether or not you have experienced trauma as a result of being present at the birth, and what you can do to find help.
Dr Kim Thomas explained a bit more about the help that the BTA can offer to dads/birth partners in these situations:
We don’t see many dads at the BTA, but we’d like to change that, and we urge any dads who feel affected by birth trauma to contact us. We have a team of peer supporters who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, and one of those – Steve – is a dad who exclusively supports other dads. We also have a private Facebook group (Birth Trauma Association: parent support group) which has more than 15,000 members who support each other. Currently, only 1% of the group are dads, but they are more than welcome to join. We sometimes hear from dads that they feel bad about focusing on themselves, when they are not the ones who have been through the trauma. But they shouldn’t feel guilty. Fathers’ mental health is important for the whole family and, by taking care of your own mental wellbeing, you are also helping your partner and children.
In the light of the last comment from Kim, you might also want to take a look at another of our blog posts, this time explaining why dads’ mental health is SO important. Steve, the BTA’s peer supporter for dads, also adds to this:
To be the best, most present, dad that you can be, you need to be in a good place yourself. It’s important to be there for your partner. It’s important to be there for your child or children. After all, there’s also lots of life pressures in the form of things like careers and money, as well as day-to-day pressures, such as what to feed everyone for tea. But those things are much harder to deal with and accomplish if you’re struggling. So it’s really important to make time for your own mental health as a partner, and to work on processing whatever has been thrown at you (be that birth trauma or baked beans).
How can I help support my partner, if she is experiencing birth trauma?
Although the focus of this article has of course been on supporting you as a new dad who might have experienced birth trauma, you might also be reading this because you have concerns for your partner, or you might – in the course of reading this blog – have identified that she might also be suffering as you are. Dr Kim Thomas explains:
She may have physical injuries, or she may be frightened, angry and upset about the experience and unable to forget it. Some women may even have PTSD. Often, partners feel at a loss about how to support a woman experiencing this degree of distress, and they have nowhere to turn for help or advice.
If that is the case, the BTA is again a really helpful starting place for information – either for you to read and find out more for yourself, and/or for you to gently consider sharing with your baby’s mum.
As well as the information within their Fathers/Partners webpage (outlined above) on ways in which you can best support your partner at this time, you can also – on the BTA website – click on the ‘Parents’ button on the menu bar to find a range of links to further information. In particular, there is a helpful web page – Getting Help – outlining some of the key ways in which a new mum might look to find support if she finds herself experiencing symptoms of birth trauma, including:
- Speaking to someone – with a list of suggestions as to who she might speak to, and how she could prepare for such a conversation;
- Taking care of herself – with some ideas on self-care;
- Speaking to the hospital – with information on what options might be open, and again how to prepare; and
- Types of treatment that she may be offered/want to seek out.
There is also a webpage with downloadable leaflets which you and your partner might find helpful, including:
- Coping with a traumatic birth
- Third- or fourth-degree tears during childbirth
- Another baby? Practical advice on coping with a subsequent pregnancy after a traumatic birth
Divina, the Communities Officer at the BTA, also provided us with a little more detail about their peer support service, which may be useful to either you or your partner:
Our peer support service is offered by email and by telephone. If a parent has experienced a traumatic birth and would like to chat to someone about how they’re feeling, and the impact it’s had, they can contact our peer supports at email@example.com or they can phone us on 0203 621 6338.
All our peer supporters have recovered after their own traumatic births, so can offer a listening ear, empathy, suggestions and advice, based on their own experience. Partners who are struggling can reach out to the support email address, too – with Steve specialising in helping partners who’ve been through birth trauma.
Within our private Facebook group, people can share their story and feelings and know it’ll be read by other parents who will understand. This is a great source of comfort and often excellent advice.
We also run a fortnightly Zoom drop-in support group which I host on alternate dates – details of this are posted on the Facebook group and our social media pages.
Above all, though, please don’t forget – whether it’s you who are suffering, or your partner – to always reach out for help because YOU matter.
References and further reading:
Birth Trauma Association:
- Peer Support:
- Helpline: 0203 621 6338
- Email: support@BirthTraumaAssociation.org.uk (ask for Steve when you email, if you’re a father/partner seeking peer support)
- For more information, please view this Facebook post.
- What is birth trauma?
- Downloadable leaflets for parents – including Fathers and partners: coping with a traumatic birth
- Fathers/Partners page
- General Facebook page – Birth Trauma Association – UK
- Private Facebook group – Birth Trauma Association: parent support group
Brewer, Kirstie (2021) “I got PTSD after witnessing my daughter’s birth”, in BBC News. [online]
Heyne et al (2022) “Prevalence and risk factors of birth-related posttraumatic stress among parents: A comparative systematic review and meta-analysis”, in Clinical Psychology Review Vol 94, Jun 2022. [online]
NCT (2022) Q&A: what’s Birth Trauma Awareness Week about? [online]
NHS (2022) Feeling depressed after childbirth. [online] (scroll down to the section on Postnatal post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD))
NHS (2022) Overview – Post-traumatic stress disorder. [online]
Potter, Laura (2022) “Suffering in Silence: The Dads Dealing with Birth Trauma”, in Men’s Health [online]
PTSD UK (undated) PTSD in birthing partners. [online]
Williams, Mark (20156) “PTSD at the Birth is Common in Fathers”, in Huffington Post. [online]