Home About Dr Gayle Counseling Services Speaking Services Online Seminars Articles Press Room Books Contact

Ask Dr. Gayle

Nightmares Following Baby's Birth

QUESTION: I am 27 years old and have been happily married for nine years. We have two great kids -- a son who is eight, and a three-month-old daughter. My son was born by cesarean. Though my daughter was a planned VBAC, her birth was very difficult (15 hours!) and painful. I still am having nightmares about the day she was born. I go through the entire labor in my dreams. Even while I'm awake I have daydreams and can hear the sounds in the delivery room (they used a vacuum extractor on me). I remember ALL the pain and how out-of-control I felt. Is this normal? Am I nuts? Why is this happening?

ANSWER: You are not crazy. Labor and childbirth is an impactful experience, which needs to be integrated due to its enormity. Because the experience is devalued, attention to women's needs to prepare adequately and to process the birth following delivery is greatly neglected in our society.

It is true that labor is painful, and preparing to cope with it actively is important in order to feel some sense of mastery of the physical experience. But even without realistic preparation, and after the fact, talking about the experience can help you to better integrate it.

Let's take a look at how much went well in your birth. You were able to deliver vaginally in 15 hours. Given that she was your first baby to come down your vagina, this was excellent time. The average total time for a first baby is generally about 24 hours. Though you needed help to push her down, she came through the birth passageway even though you were quite distressed with the pain. Perhaps you were shocked by the sensation of labor and did not expect such intensity. It is natural to feel afraid when you are faced with sudden unexpected pain.

But let's go back a moment, and imagine that you had the help of a doula (labor coach) and your husband who was able to help you breathe and even yell your way through contractions. Supported with the sense that you would make it through, and resting in between contractions would have helped you feel less traumatized by the process. In fact, women who are supported through the birth and realistically prepared for actively coping with pain, often feel a sense of empowerment afterwards. And it is not too late to create a visualization (perhaps with a friend's or even a professional counselor's help) of doing just that. Refer to my book An Easier Childbirth for help creating a healing visualization for a past childbirth.

Labor and birth is a powerful force that is nothing short of an ordinary miracle. It is an experience of great dimensions. It can be very positive or very negative, but it is not neutral. Women deserve support to integrate the magnitude of this experience, which is so denied and misunderstood by society and many in the medical profession.

You are right to pay attention to your feelings about the birth. Address your experience through visualization and/or counseling so that you may integrate the depth of this experience instead of feeling overwhelmed by it. The experience of labor is a part of you that needs assimilation in order to resolve your sense of trauma. And like any event of great magnitude, learning about ourselves with respect to it can yield insight.

With support, you may find that you uncover a deep appreciation for yourself and a new realization of the strengths within yourself that brought forth your daughter's life!


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..

Return to Dr. Gayle Peterson's Home Page

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

Send Comments and Inquiries to Dr. Gayle Peterson at gp@askdrgayle.com