Anna Williamson: ‘I almost died giving birth – I felt traumatised and useless as a mother’

Anna wants to normalise conversation around PTSD after a traumatic birth (Picture: Anna Williamson)

Giving birth to a child is meant to be one of the most incredible moments of your life – but for far too many, it is a traumatic experience that leaves lasting damage.

TV presenter Anna Williamson experienced a particularly difficult birth with her first child. She faced a life-or-death situation, battled terrifying panic attacks during labour, and was barely conscious when her child was born due to a huge haemorrhage.

The experience left her severely traumatised for months, and now she wants to share her story to help remove the stigma of PTSD and depression following a traumatic birth.

‘I was incredibly anxious in pregnancy, in fact I was later diagnosed with perinatal anxiety which really marred my first pregnancy as I felt incredibly up-and-down and unusually worried,’ Anna tells

Anna and her husband had done hypnobirthing classes and NCT antenatal classes, but nothing could prepare her for having a back-to-back labour, which is where the baby’s head is down, and the back of their head is against the mum’s spine.

‘I never actually felt the period pain like cramps, it was all in my back and because nobody had told me this could happen, I completely freaked out and was having panic attacks during labour,’ says Anna.

‘I did as well as I could for the first 16 hours of labour, and I did find the hypnobirthing helpful, but it was a long labour and there were complications so I had to have help in the end, which made me feel out of control and a bit useless. I definitely should’ve been kinder to myself!’

Anna says it’s really important to remind people that every birth is unique and different.

‘Never let anybody else’s birth story affect you and yours,’ she says. ‘My back-to-back labour was very slow, I was already 10 days overdue and it took an awfully long time to reach the holy grail 3 cm when I could be admitted.

Anna was barely conscious for the birth of her son thanks to a massive haemorrhage (Picture: Anna Williamson)

‘I had wanted originally to go in the birthing centre for a natural birth, but it wasn’t to be. I was severely dehydrated upon admittance to the labour ward and not coping with the pain. The best thing in the world, an epidural, gave me some rest and allowed me to reset myself a bit.

‘I was able to push my son for just over an hour and managed to get him 4/5 of the way out, but his head was in an odd position and he was still back-to-back, so essentially stuck. So, I was whisked to theatre for a spinal block and a forceps birth.’

Anna had what is called a ‘high block’ – an anaesthetic reaction – which affected her ability to swallow and breathe.

‘The medical team were very swift in helping me but I wasn’t really conscious for my son’s birth. I heard him cry which I’m pleased about, but I suffered a large haemorrhage so I didn’t actually see or hold my son for an hour or so until after the birth and I had come round.

‘It was deeply upsetting for me and I struggled to process everything that had gone on.’

Anna’s initial reaction after the traumatic experience of birth was disconcerting for her. She felt numb and couldn’t connect. It wasn’t the rush of love and euphoria that she had been taught to expect. 

‘I actually felt nothing, and that was the worst thing of all,’ she says. ‘I wanted to feel something, anything. I wanted to be head-over-heels in love with my baby and not care about what had just happened to my body, but the truth is I felt traumatised by the near-death situation I had just faced. I was in no fit state to care for a baby.’

For the weeks and months after the birth, Anna says she was absolutely terrified. The trauma of the birth stayed with her and she couldn’t get her head around her new reality.

‘I felt robbed of my perfect birth and I struggled to get to grips with my baby,’ says Anna. ‘I missed my old life, I didn’t like this hollow shell I had become and I felt useless as a mother.

‘I couldn’t breastfeed him properly and I struggled to enjoy him initially, and I felt that I had failed at giving birth.

‘Suffering in silence is by far the worst and most dangerous thing.’ (Picture: Anna Williamson)

‘The worst thing is I also didn’t tell anybody how I felt because I felt guilty as I had this wonderful, beautiful, perfect little baby that so many would give their eyeteeth to have. The suffering in silence is by far the worst and most dangerous thing and I encourage anyone who struggled like I did to speak out.’ 

Anna says she noticed thing starting to improve in one moment – a simple smile from her little boy, looking up at her from the changing mat.

‘He was around six weeks old and I had just been existing in the cycle of having a newborn until then, feeling very little other than the black fog of depression and the grip of panic and anxiety,’ she says.

‘That day as he looked into my eyes and smiled at me, it felt like something begun to thaw inside me. It was the best feeling in the world, I suddenly felt that he liked me, and I liked him, and things were going to be okay.

‘I would say it was a good year and then I really started to feel myself again. And it took until my son was two and asking for a sibling for us to even think about doing it again. Luckily the huge love we both had for him made it all worth trying again.

Anna says finding an understanding doctor was an essential part of her recovery.

‘I am lucky I have a consultant psychiatrist I have known for a long time, and he knows me very well,’ she explains. ‘He was the first person to take the pressure off me, give me empathy, sympathy, and options on how to get better.

‘Thankfully with medication and talking therapy, and making changes in how I was going to parent, such as bottle feeding to give me a chance to physically recover and let somebody else take over the nights, it all helped reduce the anxiety.

‘I also found signing up for a little baby massage class really helpful, it gave me something to aim for each week and it was a huge goal for me to get out of the house and achieve something with my son.

‘I also had a birth reflection with the maternity department at the hospital I birthed at to talk over my birth notes and to understand what had happened during my birth, as I had a very patchy memory of it. That helped me to heal and make peace with my birth experience.’

‘I know first-hand how it feels to give birth and feel the overwhelming terror of numbness, shock and anxiety.’ (Picture: Anna Williamson)

The Birth Trauma Association launched an awareness week and support families who suffer the effects of birth trauma, which is a shorthand term for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after birth.

With around a third of women in the UK experiencing a traumatic childbirth, the charity helps with many things, including the path to healing – both physically and mentally – coming to terms with a rocky journey into motherhood, navigating relationship changes, and finding closure from the trauma.  

‘Birth trauma is incredibly common and it feels like it is on the increase, which makes me so sad and concerned for what is going on for mothers,’ says Anna.

‘Everybody loves a baby, it is such a wonderful occasion for everybody involved, but let’s not forget the mother who has endured nine months of pregnancy and the mammoth task of bringing a little human into the world safely.

‘It’s a massive deal and when you throw hormones and exhaustion into the mix it can often be anything other than sheer joy for the women who have just gone through it.

‘So many women have a brilliant time, and that is truly wonderful, but so many more women have a challenging time, and it’s important every woman who gives birth has an opportunity to work through what has happened, why, and have any unanswered questions and feelings dealt with respectfully and fully – for the sake of the whole family.

‘I know first-hand how it feels to give birth and feel the overwhelming terror of numbness, shock and anxiety. Not the feelings you hope and expect to feel after giving birth to your pride and joy.’

Anna says that not talking about it can be toxic and maks the problem even worse.

‘It’s important to remember that having PTSD or post-natal depression (PND) do not make you a substandard mother, in fact it makes you a warrior because you are caring for a little human being at the same time of juggling the debilitating feelings,’ she tells us.

‘It’s also important to know that you can fully recover. In the deepest darkest depths of my PTSD and PND I never thought I could actually love and enjoy motherhood the way I do now, and it is the love I have for my son that made me want to do it all over again and have a second – and I’m pleased to say second time round it went a lot smoother.’ 

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