Should all birth professionals offer a listening service to the parents they serve?

anxiety college depression emotional wellbeing perinatal pna pnd post natal prenatal recovery therapy trauma traumatic birth May 14, 2020

I am sure that many birth professionals reading this will think ‘I do offer a service to listen to folks birth stories.’ And I know that many will be listening and hearing parents birth stories as part of their role as a doula getting to know clients, or as a hypnobirthing teacher discussing their views on birth, or as a yoga teacher holding space for clients to explore their feelings. This listening, hearing and honouring of our clients stories is part and parcel of the main service that we offer as pre & post natal specialists or birth professionals.

There are, let’s face it, many times when we will hear parents birth stories when they are already our clients but how many of us offer this service as a distinct resource for parents who may wish to begin making sense of what happened to them during their birth?

I would say very few of us offer the opportunity to hear parents in this way, with no other agenda of our own, only using the client’s own agenda (whatever that maybe).

When someone experiences their birth as a difficult or traumatic event it can take a while for them to acknowledge the impact it has had on them. Sometimes parents are left reeling from that moment for a long, long time afterwards, and begin to wonder when the heavy feelings will ever lift.

Sometimes, despite a tough experience, parents do recover afterwards and are able to go on and thrive into parenthood with their baby but they may find their experience (and all of the attached anxiety) is retriggered when they are pregnant again or thinking about adding to their family.

It’s very natural after any difficult, traumatic life event to want to move on, to forget, to bury it, to run from it. Avoidance is a trauma symptom in itself and one that many of us will suffer from following a traumatic event. People who are experiencing avoidance symptoms are unlikely to seek help, preferring to isolate themselves away from others for fear of being asked to recall or remember what happened. For this reason avoidance can lead to a very lonely experience for parents, often driven by a belief that ‘no one understands’ or ‘I can’t stand to feel it’.

Many people experiencing trauma symptoms will never seek help, will never share their story, will never let their suffering out.

And then again there are those who are compelled to retell and relive their story over and over again, as if on loop, unable to move on but stuck in a groove of suffering retriggering all the heavy feelings over again with each telling and remembering.

So you see, when someone does choose to talk about it, perhaps it has taken an enormous amount of courage to face the awful thing that happened, to stare down the thing that caused so much pain. And if this is the case should we not offer them a more considered experience, one that exists purely in itself, for itself as a listening experience?

Many birth professionals feel concerned or confused about hearing someone’s birth story. They may have heard that retelling a difficult story can be re-traumatising and they worry about making a person feel worse. They may feel that holding space for a person’s story to be heard should be a therapist’s job and not a birth professionals.

The truth is for those parents who are seeking peace and are wanting to begin making sense of what happened a good listening service, held by someone who understands the nuances of birth and the perinatal life stage, is a vital opportunity to start the healing process.

The problem is that most stand alone birth listening services are only available from maternity services. This is problematic for many parents as they simply find returning to the maternity ward too traumatising. What is on offer varies from trust to trust, with some recognising the difference between a ‘debrief’ that generally involves going through the notes and a ‘listening’ service that is much more about hearing a person’s experience, acknowledging and validating their feelings that have landed as a result of that.

A recent survey found that 55% of parents said their debrief was ‘unhelpful’ and I can’t help think if that is because they were not asked what they wanted from their session. I have found that this can vary hugely from person to person. Some folk simply want their experience to be heard, their feelings to be acknowledged and validated. Others want assurances that it won’t happen again to others or themselves. Some want to understand why what happened, happened. Sometimes folk want to begin to understand why it feels so bad. Sometimes people want an apology. Sometimes people want clarification if they are unsure of what happened to their body. While some of these things can only be accommodated by a midwife looking over the notes much of what helps is a compassionate (NOT empathising) ear.

Psychologists have recognised that long held trauma symptoms can have a negative impact on a person’s health and wellbeing. In his book Lost Connections, Johann Hari meets Dr Vincent Felitti who is an expert on childhood trauma and conducted pioneering research into how it can cause depression (and other problems) later in life. He also conducted a study into  what the effect could be if doctors acknowledged, recognised and validated people who had checked on a questionnaire before hand that they had experienced a traumatic event in their childhood. Over 10,000 people took part and the doctors who saw them were simply instructed to acknowledge their past trauma and offer the opportunity to talk about it if they wanted to, offer compassion (‘I’m sorry that happened to you’) and to ask if they believed it still impacted on their health.

This process of acknowledging suffering, validating feelings and begin to ask ‘how does that still impact on you?’ appears to have had a healing affect for those involved in Felitti’s study and I am not surprised.

It is this process that I have seen work like a balm for people who have been keeping their traumas and feelings inside and hidden for long time. Struggling to cope with heavy feelings, re-triggered by birthdays, adapting to constant anxiety in unhealthy ways.

There are of course some things to be mindful of when holding space in this way for folk, as well as using conversation as a way of guiding someone attention away from their past pain and towards a more peaceful future can safeguard against dissociation and re-traumatising.

If you would like to know more about providing a stand alone service for parents then enrol in Bring Relief With Your Debrief online course for pre & post natal specialist and birth professionals.

This course guides you through setting up an effective listening service that considers parents needs and desires first, shows how to recognise trauma symptoms and how to avoid re-traumatising. Vitally this course will show you how to guide someone towards their own natural healing state.

Register your interest in this course that only opens twice a year for enrolment and receive the early bird offer.