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Worried About Repeating a Bad Birth Experience

QUESTION: My husband and I have a 13-month-old daughter and we would like to begin trying to conceive. I am excited about having another child but I'm really frightened of having another horrible birth experience. With my first baby I was in labor for more than a day, failed to progress beyond five centimeters, and my baby's heartbeat was lost for five minutes. We ended up having an emergency cesarean. I felt cheated of a normal birth. I am worried that a horrible mishap will occur next time. Is there anything I can do to prevent having another truamatic birth experience?

ANSWER: Childbirth is an extraordinary experience, despite it's commonality. It is inevitable that trauma associated with the birth of your first child colors your expectations of the next delivery.

Keep in mind that your body had never completed a pregnancy or given birth before you had your daughter. Even though you experienced "failure to progress", your cervix did in fact progress to dilate to five centimeters. You were half way to full dilation! Begin to think about the success of this, instead of the failure to complete the process vaginally. A possible reason for your daughter's drop in heartrate may have included compression of the cord. In addition, a slightly slanted head presentation could have slowed dilation at the same time.

Though a slightly misaligned head presentation is not unusual in a first labor, it is not likely that it will occur again or at the same level of difficulty the next time because your daughter has literally made headway for the next child! Even though she did not come through vaginally, your body stretched in the pregnancy and you have already experienced dilating to five centimeters. There is much more flexibility in your body due to this reality.

Your body does learn from previous experience and may in fact be better sensitized to respond to the hormones of labor the next time around. In addition, if your daughter's heartbeat did drop, due to cord compression, this event is not likely to recur in a second labor. Or if the labor was arduous, causing some difficulty for her does not mean that a second labor would not proceed more quickly for your next baby, and that a second child would not already be positioned heading straight down because of the inner stretchability already described.

Second childbirth is overall statistically much smoother than the first! Clearly this is because pregnancy and labor are not completely new experiences to your body. Even though you experienced a cesarean for your daughter's birth, your body has also experienced a very good part of labor!

Check with your obstetrician to secure information to understand your past experience. This will help you make sense of the trauma in the context of what you are reading here. Find out why this labor and birth may have been difficult so that you can begin to visualize how it could proceed more smoothly the next time around! Without this knowledge, you will be left only with the imprint of the past, which will continue to charge your expectations and your response to your next labor negatively.

It is natural to feel sad or angry at not having had the childbirth you had planned. Grieving the loss of a positive birthing experience does not diminish your love, attachment or gratitude for your daughter's well being. Our society does not support or understand the meaning of childbirth to a woman's life and development and commonly devalues the experience and women's need to work through trauma when it does occur in childbirth.

The anxiety for your daughter's life that surrounded your childbirth has naturally left you with feelings of fear and trepidation for the next time. In addition to the steps outlined above, it will be extremely helpful to use visualization and other techniques to heal the past through releasing shock and trauma from your first delivery, making way for emotional preparation that includes the possibility of a normal and uncomplicated childbirth.

At the moment you are primed for trauma in birth. It will take some processing to recover your ability to relax and cope with the next labor effectively. Read my book, "An Easier Childbirth: A Mother's Guide to Birthing Normally". Work through the exercises to help you prepare emotionally for meeting your next labor from a place of inner strength and increased serenity rather than fear and reactivity. You have undergone a valiant, but traumatic experience with your first child. Seek support of other mothers (Vaginal birth after Cesarean groups and books on VBAC) that offer compassion for your experience as well as true stories of people who have given birth vaginally following a traumatic labor ending in cesarean.

You are not alone. And your experience is not a sign that your body will not respond to your next labor differently. Labor is mother and child working together in the best way possible to spring forth life! Perhaps your body "knew" enough to hold back on dilation because the cord was being compressed. This would be a sign of great body wisdom in holding back, rather than "failure to progress" in your last childbirth! Become curious about the ways your body did work in the last childbirth, and take your emotional preparation for your next labor seriously. And remember that when all is said and done, childbearing remains a miracle, and a mystery despite all we know.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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