Birth Trauma – and what it really means

The truth, one that few realise, is that our birth journey is the most heroic journey we will ever make. This journey literally shapes us for life.

When I first heard about the Augmented Society Network Project on ‘Creativity offers us a new formula for life’, through my friend and project organiser  Julie Samuels, a Fellow of the RSA (Royal Society for Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce), I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity to create sculptural pieces that creatively illustrate birth trauma. My artworks will be displayed in an RSA exhibition in November 2023 and in an innovative virtual gallery with the other network project contributors from around the world.

I could not have done this project without the help and guidance of leading US baby therapist Karlton Terry.  With Karlton’s guidance I have created three sculptures depicting trauma at Stages 1, 2 and 3. A planned caesarean birth brings its own challenges too for both the mother and baby, but for this project I have only considered vaginal birth. Please note, birth is usually seen from the mother’s perspective and the 3 stages of labour are different. to the three stages described here, which depict the perinate’s perspective. 

The first sculpture, No Way Down, depicts traumatic challenges at birth stage 1 – which resulted in a parietal/ frontal bone overlap and frontal bone that is pushed down.

No Way Down

This type of birth trauma can sometimes result in an unplanned caesarean or in pain relief for the mother – that does not stop the intensity of the contractions or pain for the perinate. Please click this link to see a short video of this sculpture with poetic commentary about the birth journey and it’s potential impact on the perinate and the adult. The music in the video is Ravel’s Bolero, from a You Tube Channel, which I played in the background whilst reading the poetic commentary. This music, suggested by Karlton, has personal significance for me as it was one of my mother’s favourite pieces and we played it at her funeral. It felt right for me to use it for this project.

The psychological profile associated with this stage 1 birth trauma is one of frustration and impatience, also perhaps a sense of betrayal. This is a determined highly sensitive person who pushes through, or shuts down.

The second sculpture – Nowhere to Turn – shows a difficult stage 2. Stage two is the narrowest part for the perinate to pass through. This particular trauma is described as a ‘Zig Zag birth’.

Nowhere to Turn

This woman broke her nose, and her jaw was dislocated when trying to turn to get through the pelvis and to get past her mother’s LSP (Lumbar Sacral Promontory) with her face pushed against her mother’s spine as she turned one way and then the other. Broken noses and jaw issues are not uncommon in birth. A mother may receive pain relief medication but the perinate still feels the pain.  Please click this link to see a video of this sculpture with audio commentary. The psychological profile of a zig zag birth is one of being unable to make decisions easily and to dither and change never knowing the right course to take – ultimately perhaps coming to an understanding that there is no ‘right’ way.

The third sculpture – Hitting the Wall – depicts birth trauma at stages 2 and 3, especially stage 3.

Hitting the Wall

This birth journey resulted in a ‘right lie’ perinate suffering permanent eye damage at stage 2. At stage 3 her forehead was pushed against her mother’s sacrum leading to a flattened forehead – a ‘nose to the grindstone’ birth. Her mother’s Lumbar Sacral Promontory pushed into her heart and the pubic synthesis dug into her neck and shoulders. Cord issues are most common in stage 3 with the perinate then starved of oxygen. Please click this link to see a short video about the sculpture with commentary. The psychological profile associated with this type of birth trauma is one of resignation and exhaustion – unable to see the end the person may struggle to finish things. This person has learned to delve deep and find inner strength and trust.

Understanding our own birth journey potentially offers us tremendous insight into the way we deal with life’s challenges – and opportunities for self knowledge, self compassion and healing.

Here is a photo of me as a baby with markings from Karlton Terry’s Birth Mask studio to show my birth journey. I have an indentation on my forehead from birth – and I had a difficult stage 2. I was a ‘right lie’ and my right eye is smaller and closer to the midline. The right side of my face was ‘smooshed’ – one of Karlton’s favourite words – and I can feel differences inside my mouth. Learning about my birth and my early life in my mother’s womb – I was a ‘surprise’ baby – has helped me understand myself better and appreciate how amazing my start in life really was.

How we get here is totally incredible! We are so much formed by our journeys and our time before our birth has been much overlooked.

If you are interested in knowing more about birth trauma and prenatal influences – and potentially working with me using craniosacral therapy to support a healing journey/ process (craniosacral therapy can be done on adults and babies for birth trauma!) please get in touch.

The organisations/websites Our Birth Journey and APPPAH are useful resources to find out more about birth trauma and pre-and perinatal psychology – as is Karlton Terry’s website, where you can find out more about your own, or your child/baby’s, ‘Birth Mask’.