How to Heal from Birth Trauma. By Lael Stone
Healing is possible at any age when we understand how to hold a space.
By Guest Writer Lael Stone
The doctor stood at the end of my bed with an incredibly somber look on his face.
“We don’t expect her to live through the night, and if she does she will most likely have brain damage”
This is not the news that you expect to hear once you have given birth. In my drugged post-caesarean state I took this information in and realised that the only thing I had control over was my blind optimism and faith in my daughter.
A few hours earlier during labour I had been taken to theatre as my baby was breech and not in a viable position for a vaginal delivery. I had a bad reaction to the spinal anesthetic which in turn caused my baby’s heart rate crash. The Obstetrician worked with incredible skills to get her out as soon as possible but she was deprived of oxygen for a very long time. Her prognosis was very grim and all we could do was wait, stay positive and trust.
She spent days in an induced coma cooling her body to ensure her brain didn’t swell. She had CAT scans, MRIs, every test under the sun and on the fourth day when they removed her intubation tube, much to everyone’s surprise, she miraculously breathed on her own. After many tests and much disbelief from nearly all the hospital staff, they couldn’t find anything wrong with my daughter. Whether it was her fighting spirit, our blind faith that she would be alright or really a miracle, she came through the ordeal and we got to take her home ten days after she was born. A normal, healthy baby, who had a very rough start.
The days she was in the NICU were some of the most challenging of my life. I learned about letting go and surrender on a scale that I had never experienced before. As I sat by her ICU cot, I kept reminding her that I trust her completely and she could do whatever she needed to do. Stay or go.
Leaving the hospital each night to come home and sleep was so hard. I would wake every few hours to express milk, thinking about the strangers that were looking after my baby. I wasn’t there when she cried, I wasn’t there to feed her, I wasn’t there to protect her. The feelings would sometimes overwhelm me and I would burst into tears that I wasn’t with my baby. I would cry in my husband’s arms.
“I don’t even know her, I don’t know what she smells like, what she really looks like. I don’t know her.”
So many overwhelming feelings that I had to push away in order to continue looking after my two other children and hold it together so I could concentrate on getting my newborn home.
The day we finally brought her home I remember walking in the door and knowing that it wasn’t over. We had all been through a very big experience and I knew enough from my work that all that stress, separation and trauma had to go somewhere and sooner or later it was going to come out.
As life settled down and I learned to juggle a newborn (as well as a 4- and 7-year-old), I started to see the cracks appearing. For the first time in my life, I started to become very anxious about my older children. I started to think that something was going to happen to them, that they would get hit by a car or someone might take them. I started to fret and worry about safety. Anxiety was starting to whisper to me about the trauma I was holding. Meanwhile, my beautiful newborn daughter started to show signs of tension and stress. Making constant movements with her hands and sucking furiously on anything that would go near her mouth as a stress release.
It was time for us to do some healing. I started by working on our bodies, having regular Cranial Osteopathy helped bring back some balance and thanks to a friend I stumbled across the work of Dr. Aletha Solter. Dr. Solter is a Swiss-American developmental psychologist, who is recognised internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline. When her first child was born in 1977 (following a traumatic birth) she did not find any parenting books that advocated attachment-style parenting and non-punitive discipline while taking into account the impact of stress and trauma on children’s development.
Dr. Solter’s book The Aware Baby was both groundbreaking and challenging for me. She spoke about a baby’s need to release stress and trauma through attachment, laughing and crying. It was a completely different approach to help babies and young children release their emotions. I was coming from a modern way of parenting which prizes a “good baby” – one that never cries and sleeps through the night. I had spent years and years with my older children trying to stop them crying and spending hours upon hours rocking them to sleep. In contrast, Dr. Solter was suggesting that if your baby cries or is upset once its needs had been met (hunger, sleep, etc), then the solution was to just be with them. Hold space for your baby to release any pent-up feelings or emotions.
A light bulb went off for me. Everything I read made complete sense. I didn’t like shutting my older kids down when they had big feelings, but I just didn’t know how to handle it. So I started slowly: each day when I had a quiet space I would take my baby into my room and hold her gently. I would look her in the eyes and say to her If there is anything you want to let go of, I am listening. Nearly every time she would start crying. Sometimes it would be for five minutes, sometimes half an hour, but each time I would hold her gently look her in the eyes and tell her I am listening.
Sometimes I could not help feeling overwhelming grief or emotions, and I would cry too. Other times I was able to sit there in such peace, just holding my baby who was letting her body do its thing, releasing all the stress and trauma. Every time my baby finished crying she would make long deep eye contact with me and either smile and engage or fall into a deep sleep.
Each day I would see and feel a difference with my her. The frantic tension in her body eased and I felt a connection with her that was so deep and profound. My osteopath would comment on how different her body felt and how relaxed she was. I was in no doubt: this was the path to healing. The change and healing within me were also incredible. My anxiety disappeared and I felt so deeply bonded and connected with my daughter.
As time went on, I learned more about Aware Parenting and started to work in different ways to help babies and children release their stress. I started to do attachment play with all my children, using play and laughter as a way to help them feel more powerful or deal with fears and anxieties. My baby and I would spend time rolling around on the floor engaged in laughter and connection as well as times when she needed to cry and release.
Extreme laughter, play and intense crying all became part of the norm in our house. I began to see shifts in not just my youngest daughter but also my older children. Instead of getting aggressive or using non-favorable behavior when they had big feelings, they would come to me and let it out. Sometimes through rough and tumble play, sometimes through tears. There was so much more harmony in our home because of it. Inspired and assured by the power of these techniques, I went on to become an Aware Parenting Instructor.
My beautiful baby is now a thriving, amazing 9-year-old. I have been listening to her feelings for every one of those years and what I witness is a child with extraordinary emotional awareness. She will often articulate in an instant what she is feeling and ask for what she needs: “Can you cuddle me, mum, whilst I have a cry?“ or “I’ve got some mad feelings going on. Can you rumble with me so I can get them out?”
Our journey from birth to now was a big one but by listening to her, and therefore listening to myself, the healing that took place was even more profound than the trauma that started it. I am so very grateful for the journey we had together. It taught me so much professionally and personally and showed me that no matter what happens in our world we can always heal.
About the Author
Lael Stone is a proud mother of three children who has worked as a Birth Attendant/Doula and certified Calmbirth Instructor since 2004. From a background in wellbeing, counselling, and research, Lael was compelled into the field of childbirth education by her own birth experiences. It has been her privilege over the years to witness and partner many couples achieving satisfying births. Lael has interviewed and collected birth experience data from hundreds of Australian women throughout her career. This data provided insight and motivation to develop the About Birth Online Education Program. A certified Aware Parenting Instructor, Lael brings her insights to the podcast “Aware Parenting”. To listen to this podcast or learn more about Lael, follow the buttons below: