More and More Women Are Talking About Mistreatment During Childbirth—Here Are Four Things You Need to Know If You’ve Been Through It
Karie K., a mom from Allentown, PA, gave birth seven years ago, but the visions from her delivery still flash through her mind. She was two weeks past her due date and was feeling nervous as she arrived at the hospital to start the induction process. She didn’t know what was next: would they break her water? Would she have to wait long for an epidural? There were so many unknowns.
“When the nurse started putting the IV in me, I simply asked, ‘What is that for?’ to which she replied very snarkily, ‘Don’t you know what you’re here for?!?” she recalls to Parade. “I can still hear her voice today. It was all downhill from there.”
After pushing for a few hours, Karie ended up having an emergency C-section because her son’s heart rate dropped. But because she had a fever, her son was whisked away to the NICU and she only got to “touch his nose briefly.” Her son was fed formula, despite the fact that Karie had planned to breastfeed.
“It still makes me sad to think about,” she shares.
Karie is not alone. According to a from the Reproductive Health Journal, of 2,700 women surveyed, one in six reported mistreatment during childbirth.
Among all participants, being shouted at or scolded by a health care provider was the most commonly reported type of mistreatment, followed by “health care providers ignoring women, refusing their request for help, or failing to respond to requests for help in a reasonable amount of time.” Some women reported violations of physical privacy, and health care providers threatening to withhold treatment or forcing them to accept treatment they did not want. Women of color, women who gave birth in hospitals, and those who face social, economic, or health challenges reported higher rates of mistreatment. Five percent of women who gave birth at home also reported mistreatment.
Dr. Amen Ness, Clinical Professor in at Stanford University and the author of , is not surprised to hear this report.
“It’s a very long standing issue,” he explains to Parade. “Many women still have a lot of emotion and pain over their bad birth stories. A lot of women think they’re the only ones, but it’s not true—lots of people are feeling that way.”
From —who told that she had to convince her medical team to do a CT scan to check for blood clots after she was feeling short of breath following an emergency C-section to deliver her baby daughter, which ultimately saved her life—to real women like Lisa Davis, who resides in New Carlisle, Ohio and says she was weight-shamed by her anesthesiologist before an epidural for her C-section (“he told me, ‘It’s harder to get good results on people ‘your size,’” she tells us), the memories of various degrees of mistreatment are raw, haunting, and painful.
An estimated 150,000 women in America experience serious illness or near-death experiences around pregnancy every year. As if that’s not scary enough, United States has a high maternal-mortality rate, several times the levels of other rich countries. Black American women are three times more likely to die or suffer serious illness from pregnancy-related causes than white women.
In my own research for this story, I heard from one woman who suffered dislocated hips from a botched delivery, to another who told me she still has pain nine years later after her doctor “snapped her tailbone” with no warning during delivery to get her daughter out. One woman told me her doctor screamed at her to stop shaking as he was trying to stitch her up post-delivery.
“Shaking after giving birth is completely normal and can’t be controlled,” Dana Gonzalez from Brooklyn, NY, says. “My doctor was complaining to a nurse, I said, ‘I’m trying to stop’…he said, ‘Try harder.’ My husband wanted to kill him.”
Dr. Ness says many women feel they were not heard or listened to during childbirth.
“Most doctors and nurses are thinking that they are doing what’s right,” he says. “They want to make things safe and do the right thing—that’s the first instinct for every doctor and nurse. But the communication often gets lost in the high-stakes of labor. Nurses and doctors will assume something is routine, but the patient does not.”
It’s not surprising, then, that approximately nine percent of women suffer from PTSD after a traumatic birth experience, according to Postpartum Support International.
“People have expectations about what their birth is going to be like, and many times, those expectations aren’t met,” Dr. Ness says. “All those layers and interactions that women went through can lead to women developing PTSD or a minor level of PTSD.”
If you feel like you were mistreated by your medical team during delivery, Dr. Ness says there are a few things you can do:
Have a conversation
Once it’s over, you should have a frank conversation with the doctor, or midwife, whoever it was, and sit with them and tell them how you are feeling. Maybe it’s at your postpartum visit, six weeks later, or maybe it’s in the hospital if you are feeling up for it. Just having a chance to express your feelings is extremely important and is helpful to avoid long-term trauma. It’s important that you are heard and you know that people are listening and care.
File a complaint with the hospital
There are dedicated hospital patient experience staff members who deal with complaints and problems. When there’s a complaint, especially a written one, that goes to every doctor involved. Expect a response and an apology—it would be unheard of for the hospital to not respond.
Consult a medical malpractice attorney if necessary
Mistreatment is not always a medical error. To see if your experience truly rises to a medical malpractice lawsuit, you would need to contact an attorney who specializes in these issues.
Be prepared for next time
If it was your first childbirth experience, make some necessary adjustments for your second time if you choose to get pregnant again. From the patient side, you need an advocate in labor. The husband is not the best person, but doulas are often very good, since they’re an outside person who knows the medical system. It’s important you do your research to find the right hospital for you. You may also want to make a birth wishlist, which is better than a birth plan. Talk to your medical team about your wishlist—what you would like to happen. Your expectations should be addressed beforehand.
While some women told me they were scarred for life after their experiences, others were hopeful. Corinne Barndt, from Quakertown, PA, did receive an apology from her hospital after she had a bad experience with a nurse yelling at her at different times during delivery, including telling her to be quiet during active labor because she would “scare the other women about to give birth.”
However, after that awful first experience, Barndt had a much better medical team the second time around. “My second delivery was completely different and a greatly positive experience,” she says.
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