Birth trauma: 'For months I was convinced my baby wasn't mine'
Helen Miller suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following a traumatic birth. The 34-year-old from the Wirral, Merseyside, opens up about how flashbacks and a severe lack of sleep led her mental health to spiral. After having intrusive thoughts about harming her baby, she was hospitalised for three months. Now recovered, she runs a support group for women and families affected by postnatal depression.
I had never suffered with my mental health before. The pregnancy, my first, was uneventful, despite being classed as high risk because of my weight. However, I can now see that the start of my struggles began when I was carrying Erin. I was very worried something would go wrong, and felt it was almost a surety I would lose my much-wanted baby.
I was pregnant at the height of the pandemic, and the isolation and worries about my husband Karl not being allowed to be with me for the birth undoubtedly had an impact. After a traumatic birth, I suffered flashbacks and hallucinations and wouldn't sleep for days on end. All these factors created a perfect storm that led to me losing touch with reality.
In September 2020, the day before Erin's due date, I was induced because the meconium (the baby's poo) was in the amniotic fluid. I’d been terrified because I’d heard induction can cause a more a painful birth.
After 10 hours, I was allowed to push. But after 30 minutes, I was told the baby's head was in the wrong position and I needed to go to theatre for a rotational forceps delivery and warned I may need a Caesarean section. I felt sick and really scared.
I cried my eyes out, convinced my baby would die and I would die. It was also distressing knowing that if I had a under general anaesthetic my husband would have to leave the theatre.
I was given an extended episiotomy (a deeper cut than usual to make the vaginal opening bigger). Erin's head came out, but her shoulders got stuck behind my pelvis. A medic ran out shouting "shoulder dystocia" and more doctors ran in. Suddenly, my legs were positioned completely vertical, pointing to the ceiling, and a midwife was doing compressions on my stomach. No one told me what was happening. All I could see was the blue screen up in my face.
I would later learn that Erin had gone into distress. With her head out, a C-section was not possible and the doctor pulled her out with both hands by rotating her. I waited for the cry but there was silence. Erin was non-responsive and immediately whisked away for oxygen.
All I kept saying was ‘I’ve failed, I’ve failed’. I know it's not rational, but I felt like I had let my baby down on my first task: to deliver her safely. Thankfully, Erin came round with a rub of a towel and escaped with no injuries. I lost a lot of blood: five pints.
I never had much time to bond with skin-on-skin with Erin because I blacked out and collapsed from low blood pressure several times over the following few days. I had a blood transfusion. It was during that first week in hospital that I had a sudden, bizarre bout of confusion and forgot that I’d had a baby and didn't know who I was.
Back home, outwardly I appeared fine and I kept saying how lucky we were. My bond with Erin was good. But I’d snap over the tiniest thing with my family, and while the baby slept brilliantly, I kept waking up in the night and was unable to go back to sleep. I felt agony in my pelvis and I developed several infections, ending up in A&E separated from my daughter for 24 hours. I struggled with breastfeeding – Erin wouldn't latch and I couldn't get my milk supply up with pumping. I gave up after 10 days and again I felt like a failure.
My husband Karl, a lorry driver, had to work away for five days at a time, and with Covid restrictions imposed again, it was very isolating being at home alone caring for a baby when I was still struggling physically and mentally with what I now know was PTSD from the birth. I began to feel really depressed. I went for a walk by the sea with my baby and thought about jumping in and drowning us both. But thankfully I was able to soon talk myself out of it.
I attended a birth review at the hospital and after hearing what actually happened to me it was like my mind just snapped overnight. I started having flashbacks of the birth and I had a stretch of almost no sleep for eight days. I began believing that Erin wasn't my baby and the intrusive thoughts of harming her intensified. I didn't want to hurt her, it was more like an involuntary thing. I’d be changing her nappy and have a vision of banging her head against the wall. I also had repetitive dreams about smothering her. One night during this dream I sleepwalked over to her cot, which terrified me.
I kept asking who the baby was. I’d gone doolally. The crisis team came to me at home for a week and then I was sent to a mother-and-baby unit. When the medics asked me if I knew who Erin was, I alternated between saying my baby had died and was in the bin or I was still pregnant and she was stuck inside me. I had hallucinations: one time I woke up and a man was standing there laughing at me. I was diagnosed with maternal obsessive-compulsive disorder and PTSD and given anti-psychotics and anti-depressants.
We had group therapy sessions and I learnt that one mother had had her baby taken into care. The care staff had always said they didn't have any concerns that I would actually harm Erin, because I felt distressed by the thoughts. Then they said they did have concerns – not that I would harm her, but that now she was a little older she would find my outbursts upsetting. This all triggered a meltdown and I was terrified my child would also be taken from me.
After three months and a phased return home, I started to get better. It was months before I could call Erin by her name and I could accept she was mine, but I got there. I received fantastic support from the perinatal team and local charities. I had always been proactive about my recovery. Along with the meds (which I’m still on now), I had talking therapy and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing, a treatment for PTSD. I took Erin swimming and to baby classes and did lots of baby massage to help strengthen our bond. It's really strong now and Erin is a happy, healthy two-year-old.
I still struggled with pelvic pain and it was 18 months before I was referred for physio when they discovered it had been damaged during the birth. Last year I developed trichotillomania, when someone cannot resist the urge to pull out their hair – and I made myself bald on top. But overall, I’m doing really well.
I became a volunteer with postnatal depression charity Pandas UK and I run an affiliated support group, through which I’ve helped around 100 families. While I received great support, I feel you have to get really ill to get the help. I want to be able to support women who are struggling and don't qualify for NHS help before they become ill.
Have you got a real life story to share? Email [email protected].Helen Miller suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following a traumatic birth. The 34-year-old from the Wirral, Merseyside, opens up about how flashbacks and a severe lack of sleep led her mental health to spiral. After having intrusive thoughts about harming her baby, she was hospitalised for three months. Now recovered, she runs a support group for women and families affected by postnatal depression.