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  • Geri Robertson, RC

Birth Trauma and Brain Development

Updated: May 21

Birth Trauma and the Developing Brain

Geri Robertson, RPC


There is plenty of research done on birth trauma from the mother’s perspective and how it affects attachment, trust in one’s own body, how it can result in PTSD, sometimes even preventing some women from having more children. While research on birth trauma from the mother's perspective is plentiful, its impact on infants remains under-addressed.

 I have found in my practice, a correlation between birth trauma and child behavior, no matter how early on, either in-utero, during birth or within the first year of life, trauma can affect brain development.  Birth trauma includes but is not limited to the following:

1.    Long labor or short labor

2.    Umbilical cord wrapped around fetus’s neck.

3.    C-section

4.    Uterine Inertia, this is when the contractions slow down, or stop all together.

5.    Induction of labor

6.    Epidural

7.    Adoption

8.    Baby in wrong position


In these cases, it is reported, the prefrontal cortex is affected thru an abnormal load of stress hormones due to the stress the mother is under, and the survival mode the baby’s brain experiences due to the threat of it’s own survival. Over time it becomes harder for infants and toddlers to access their cerebral cortex, “the thinking brain”. Instead, they function more from their limbic system, which governs emotions and basic survival response.  These babies grow up healthy and are often quite bright, however, because of the early traumatic experience their sympathetic nervous system gets stuck in fight, flight, or freeze.

Consequently, when faced with a stressor, their ability to regulate emotions and impulses becomes impaired, as it is not developed age appropriately, and the amygdala kicks in to take over, bringing the child to a place of reaction of emotions again not age appropriate. We witness a child of 8 years of age, presenting in a temper tantrum because they have been denied something they want, the response seems very out of context. 

For example, I treated a young boy 8 years old, he had terrible difficulty with separation anxiety when he was way from his mother, outside of normal activity. He can play outside, go to school, but nothing more. It was interrupting the natural progression of making and keeping friends because he could not tolerate overnights at a friends’ house.  It affected his school experience because, he would behave unreasonably in class and the school yard.

 His greatest struggle stemmed from absence from his, mom, he could not tolerate it.  Calling her incessantly, unable to sleep or eat. Acting out in school and at home in often violent ways.  By the time Mom returned home after even just one night away, it took him days to recover to normal behavior.

After a few sessions, I asked Mom what his birth story was, she informed me, it was a difficult birth, one where she was very scared from start to finish, as well, after her son was born, he was taken from her, put in an ambulance, lights and sirens blaring and rushed to another hospital 45 minutes away.  The baby was taken from his mother’s womb not given time to rest on her skin to make that first contact and connection.  This may have been necessary to save his life, however, left him forever changed. 

Mom was not allowed to go with her baby in the ambulance but followed in the car. This early experience, creating core memory, was one of a life-threatening impact.  This child had no idea this had happened to him when he entered my office.  In session I told him his birth story, explaining to him how this experience may have impacted him emotionally and how he, as a new born, might have experienced it as though he were going to die because he was taken away from the one person he knew instinctively he needed to survive.  His brain was flooded with stress hormones and locked part of it in survival mode.  Part of his therapy consisted of his mother telling him the story, and answering any questions he had and reassuring him she was always going to be there.  Over time, he assimilated the story, and was able to do his own internal work and came to a deeper understanding of his fear of being away from his mother and now he is more relaxed and tolerates mom being away overnight. Not cured of his phobia but certainly more relaxed and can reason his own behavior out.

This is one of many stories I’ve encountered that correlates to children’s maladaptive behavior, this behavior starts expressing itself around the age of three, however, not acted upon by parents until much later around the age of 6 to 8, mainly because the caregivers have not been made aware of what is going on, nor do educators have enough information to know what the child is suffering from.

It’s very confusing for both parent and educator because the child can function quite well in many situations. However, if the child is overloaded, either with too much outside stimulus or emotionally overwhelmed, which happens for these children easily, it is this specific area I find these children struggle. 

There are many examples of birth trauma affecting emotional maturity.  The patient mentioned above, although recovered from his separation anxiety, continued with socialization issues and anger outbursts.  He struggles with responding appropriately to stressors, simply being denied ice cream an hour before dinner causes a great deal of inappropriate behavior for an 8-year-old, behavior more suited to a two-year-old.  This child’s emotional capacity is deficient.

These children who experience trauma at the time of their birth seem to be emotionally immature as time goes on.  They just can’t cope in the same way, emotionally, as their siblings or peers.  They are misunderstood, and the longer the behavior goes unchecked the worse the behavior gets, and the children end up labeled, violent, dangerous and their self esteem is diminished, and they can end up in a very dysfunctional way of life.  And due to the immaturity of the emotional development they make very bad decisions when they hit adolescence which gets worse thru the teen years.

If the behavior is incorrectly diagnosed, these children end up misdiagnosed with ODD, oppositional defiance disorder, and in some cases CD, conduct disorder.  Early intervention is necessary for proper diagnosis, leading to a deeper understanding of what these children need. 

Part of the therapeutic process is rewiring the brain, that is what we were able to do, in part, for my young patient by helping him understand his birth story.  He was able to think consistently in a different way about his fear of being left by his mother, there was a reason for it.  Consequently, creating new pathways for his brain to function. Overriding the old pathways that created so much anxiety.

While the application of neuroplasticity in therapy is a growing field, it is very powerful. In understanding we can rewire our brain has amazing benefits and outcomes. This technique can positively affect almost all psychological struggles.  Rewiring the brain, just the idea that this is possible allows us to have agency over how we think, what we think and the behavior these misaligned thoughts create.  Suddenly with practice we can change our brains. An anxious child can learn to understand their thoughts, where they come from and after a time, create new ways of thinking, helping in quelling the anxious thoughts.

An adult who has negative thoughts, negative self talk can create new pathways of positive self talk creating highways of positivity.

Children who experience birth trauma and struggle with emotional development, which we can identify early and intervene by helping them regulate their feelings, thus learning how to co-regulate with our children is one way of building their executive function very early on.

Helping our emotionally immature children to create healthier more socially acceptable behaviors at the appropriate age will assist them in feeling more competent in school around their peers.

Assisting our children to use their executive function building it like a muscle, will benefit them all thru their lifespan.  But we need to be aware this is an issue. We need to know at birth they will likely in another few years start to show signs of their emotional deficit due to their birth trauma or ours. 

As adults we have skills and can seek support to cope with a birth trauma. However, our babies are undeveloped, and the damage done is so deep; they can’t tell us, and we can’t see it, and by all intents and purposes they react perfectly normally.  The warning signs don’t evolve until later as they mature in body and intelligence, but they don’t develop at the same rate, emotionally. 

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