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Birth trauma findings spark calls for better support

Advocates want a national inquiry into birth trauma and better education for parents and professionals after one in three mothers said it was traumatic.

One in three Australian mothers say giving birth is traumatic, prompting calls for a national inquiry and better education for parents and clinicians.

More than one in 10 went even further and described their experience as highly traumatic. 

The findings come from a survey of 1002 mothers aged between 18 and 50 by Pureprofile, commissioned by the Australasian Birth Trauma Association.

The results don't surprise the organisation's co-founder Amy Dawes, who is among the 44 per cent of mothers who reported living with a physical injury from birth.

For the first 16 months of motherhood she though of herself as a "freak" and her mental health plummeted until she understood she was living with birth trauma.

"For a long time we've been normalising these kinds of symptoms after having a baby," Ms Dawes told AAP. 

"I think anyone that normalises it probably hasn't had their organs sit where they're not supposed to, so for me it has a massive impact on my mental wellbeing."

About one in eight mothers have symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, according to a study by psychologists from the University of Sydney released in June.

The survey from ATBA found more than 40 per cent had never heard of the condition until it happened to them and 17 per cent never told anyone about their symptoms.

It took 18 months before Hannah Liston was diagnosed with PTSD after the birth of her son and says her family had no idea anything was going on with her. 

"There are a lot of feelings of shame and kind of regret and 'you could have done better' or you blame yourself for what's happened," Ms Lismore said.

With the help of physiotherapists, gynaecologists, psychologists and psychiatrists she was able to have two more births and says the most important thing for mothers is to advocate for themselves.

"Don't give up on yourself, if you're not feeling right then keep trying to find the right people to help you," Ms Lismore said.

Ms Dawes is pushing for a national inquiry into birth trauma, after a NSW parliamentary committee was launched and the UK parliament established a working group.

Physiotherapist Anita Bir said it was high time the federal government examined the issue because too many women suffered in silence.

Dr Bir is one of just 14 specialist women's, men's and pelvic health physiotherapists working in Australia and said the survey results were highly concerning.

She was pleased the survey did not limit the idea of birth trauma to a life or death situation and people were left to define their own physical or emotional experience.

"We really underestimate the impact of birth trauma on people because it does have an ongoing impact on mental health, physical capacity on ongoing wellbeing and whether people want future pregnancies or not," Dr Bir said. 

Australian College of Midwives chief midwife Alison Weatherstone believes more can be done to reduce birth injuries and trauma, particularly through a greater emphasis on after care and regular postnatal visits.

She said just 21 per cent of Australian mothers had continuity of care, meaning they interacted with the same midwife through pregnancy until after birth.

"It's not always going to be an immediate post-birth period where traumatic events surface, so I think multidisciplinary care is really important, continuity of care is really important," she said.

Ms Weatherstone agreed more professionals should be educated about birth trauma and backed calls for a federal inquiry.

"There is an onus on clinicians to have that individual awareness (of birth trauma), which you can then contribute to change within the system," she said.

"Providing respectful woman-centred maternity care really is the way to change maternity."

Access to accurate, consistent, and evidence-based information is critical for pregnant women, according to Benjamin Bopp, president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

"Quality maternity care is fundamental to the health of every community," Dr Bopp said.

"It should be guided by the best available evidence and delivered with the individual woman as its focus."

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Aged Care said the federal government made women's health a priority and the national woman-centred care strategy addressed birth trauma.

It is developing national postnatal care guidelines and working to improve access to perinatal mental health support. 

Ms Dawes says there should be more education for parents about things not going to plan during delivery and help for partners, particularly if they thought their loved ones could be in serious trouble.

"There is support available and healing is possible,' Ms Dawes said.

"If think that you've experienced either psychological and physical trauma as a result of your birth experience reach out for support."

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