Podcast Episode #34

Unpacking Your Birth Story with Helen Nightingale

I had the pleasure of speaking with the lovely midwife Helen Nightingale from Real Life Midwife today, about unpacking your birth story after birth. Helen has been a midwife and nurse for over 10 years and has a wide range of experience in midwifery, research and teaching the next generation of midwives.

In this episode, we discuss Helen’s incredible ‘unpacking after baby’ service which helps new parents come to terms with emotional distress, after having a baby and promote post-traumatic growth.

Helen Nightingale discusses some of the challenges many new parents face and the importance of validating these issues to help work through the complexities of their experience, which can be done with unpacking your birth story. This ‘Unpacking after Birth’ services not only encompasses debriefing after childbirth, but also the whole journey from falling pregnant, pregnancy, birth and the postpartum after birth experience.

Working as a midwife, and helping women through this experience, Helen realised there was a real need required to help women deal with post traumatic births, pregnancy and postpartum periods. Helen also describes how someone’s perception of their experience is individual, and each and every woman may have a need to genuinely unpack their birth story, no matter what the outcome.

If you are pregnant or have recently had a baby, this episode is for you. This is such an important topic, come and let me know what you think of this episode by sending me a message.

Unpacking Birth Stories: Navigating Emotional Healing and Post-Traumatic Growth with Helen Nightingale

Birth is a profound and transformative experience that can leave lasting emotional impacts on individuals. Helen Nightingale, a registered nurse and midwife, recognized the need for addressing the emotional consequences that arise from various stages of the childbirth process. In response to the growing demand for support, she developed a service called Unpacking After Baby.

Unpacking After Baby: Going Beyond a Traditional Birth Debrief

Helen Nightingale’s service, Unpacking After Baby, takes a holistic approach to address the emotional consequences of childbirth. It acknowledges that the impact extends beyond the birth itself and encompasses the entire journey of having a baby. Whether it’s the struggles of trying to conceive, distressing pregnancy experiences, traumatic births, or emotionally challenging postpartum periods, the aim is to unpack these experiences and identify key moments that contribute to ongoing emotional distress.

Understanding Post-Traumatic Growth with Helen Nightingale

Post-traumatic growth is a term that Helen emphasises as she guides individuals through their healing journeys. While many are familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the concept of growth following trauma is lesser-known. Helen encourages women to recognise that although they may have endured difficult and distressing experiences, it is possible to resolve the associated emotions and even grow as individuals.

The Challenges of Identifying and Addressing Emotional Distress

One of the primary hurdles in addressing emotional distress after birth is identifying its existence. Many women hesitate to label their feelings as post-traumatic stress or birth trauma. They may believe their experiences don’t meet the perceived severity required for these terms. However, acknowledging and accepting the ongoing emotional consequences is the first step towards healing.

The Unpacking Process: Guided Exploration and Emotional

The process of unpacking a birth story involves delving into the emotions, thoughts, and experiences surrounding the childbirth journey. While some individuals may be able to engage in this process independently, many require the support of a facilitator. Helen stresses the importance of finding a health professional or support person who can provide a safe space for exploring these emotions, understanding what happened, and identifying the root causes of emotional distress.

The Limitations of Standard Maternity Care

Standard maternity care often falls short in providing adequate emotional support to individuals. After childbirth, women are discharged from care, and the onus falls on them to navigate the complex healthcare system to seek emotional support. However, due to time constraints and limited resources, healthcare professionals may struggle to provide the necessary emotional connection and understanding.

Unpacking After Baby: Filling the Gap in Emotional Support with Helen Nightingale

Recognising the gaps in standard maternity care, Helen developed Unpacking After Baby to provide the much-needed emotional support for women. Her service aims to bridge the disconnect between the overwhelming demand for emotional assistance and the constraints within the healthcare system. By offering a dedicated platform for unpacking birth stories, Helen provides a safe and empathetic environment for individuals to navigate their emotional healing journeys.

Embracing Post-Traumatic Growth: The Power of Unpacking Birth

Through her own experiences and witnessing the transformative power of unpacking birth stories, Helen emphasises the possibility of post-traumatic growth. By confronting and resolving emotional distress, individuals can not only find healing but also emerge stronger, more resilient, and with a newfound appreciation for their own unique birth stories.

Helen Nightingale’s Unpacking After Baby Service

Unpacking birth stories is a powerful process that goes beyond a simple debrief. Helen Nightingale’s Unpacking After Baby service offers individuals the opportunity to explore, understand, and resolve the emotional consequences of childbirth. By recognising the ongoing emotional impacts and seeking appropriate support, individuals can navigate their healing journeys and potentially experience post-traumatic growth. Through this service, Helen Nightingale is making a significant impact in empowering women to embrace their birth stories, finding strength and growth in the face of adversity.

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Unpacking Your Birth Story with Helen Nightingale: Helen's Birth Story



If you are pregnant or you’ve recently had a baby, this podcast is for you. I am your host Kath Baquie. a physiotherapist working in women’s health and mum of three. Join me each week as we dive into all things pregnancy care, childbirth, and postnatal recovery, helping you have a wonderful pregnancy and afterbirth experience. And don’t forget to hit subscribe so you don’t miss any episodes.


Well, hi there! Welcome to Episode 34 of the FitNest Mama Podcast, which is all about unpacking your birth story. I’m your host, Kath Baquie. I’m a mum of three young girls a physiotherapist for women. And I have an online community, FitNest Mama, which helps to provide pregnant and new mothers with exercises support and resources they need to move from the overwhelm the physical aches and pains of pregnancy, the weakness felt after birth, and instead we replace that with the competent confidence they need to get their bodies and minds strong again, so that they can get back to doing what they love with a bubba by their side, whether or not that’s running around with the kids at the park or running the next marathon.

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So I had the pleasure of chatting to the lovely midwife, Helen Nightingale, who offers an unpacking after baby service to help new parents come to terms with the emotional distress after having a baby. And it helps to promote post traumatic growth. So Helen has been a midwife and nurse for over 10 years. She has a wide range of clinical experience in midwifery research, and also teaching the next generation of midwives. Her biggest achievement to date, as she says, has been becoming a mother herself. And this involves navigating an incredibly complex pregnancy and the aftermath, leading to a new awareness and appreciation for the emotional challenges that new parents can face.

So if you’re pregnant, or you’ve had a baby in the past, this episode is for you. And what I hope you were also able to share with your friends, because as we say in the episode coming up, this topic is just so important to recognize and validate in order to, as Helen says, lead to our post traumatic growth as a mother and a woman.

So before I do dive into this episode, I just want to let you know about the 7 Day Free Trial that’s available for FitNest Mama. In this 7 Day Free Trial, you will be able to try one of our live weekly Pilates classes. Do as many on demand classes as you’d like binge listen to guest expert speakers discussing topics including hypnobirthing, induction mindset, and more. And there are also heaps of Q&A sessions with myself on all sorts of topics such as abdominal muscle separation, pregnancy related pelvic pain, caesarean, scar massage, mastitis, and more. All you need to do is head to https://fitnestmama.com

Right, let’s get into the show.

Well, hello, thank you for joining me today on the podcast. I really do appreciate it.


You’re welcome. It’s a privilege to be here to speak about this topic.


I first came across you on Instagram. And when I heard that you unpack a birth story, I thought we need to chat because it’s something that’s relevant. I think all women so it’s amazing. So for those who don’t know you, could you please introduce yourself.


So my name is Helen, I am a registered nurse and registered midwife. I have worked in that role in various settings for over 10 years now. But my current role, I’ve got a couple of roles really, I work as a midwifery teacher and researcher. I’m a resident midwife for the Bub App. And as a result of that I sort of built this social media platform that’s sort of snowballed into this unpacking after baby service as well.


It’s brilliant. So could you explain what you mean by unpacking the birth story?


Basically, through that social media platform, I guess. I’ve had the privilege of connecting with so many women, not just in my local area, but obviously social media affords us that luxury of being able to connect with women wherever they are in the world. And women were getting in touch with me about their experiences and these ongoing, emotional, negative emotional impacts that they’d had after having a baby. And so there’s obviously a limit to what I can do over social media with that. And I started to realize that there was this huge demand these women were wanting more out of me. And you know, in many cases, they’d also be asking me, can you please help me, I need something more for you. And I’d have to say, I’m really sorry, I don’t have anything. At the moment. This is what I do here. And so I started to think more, and I really, as a midwife, you know, my ethical beliefs, I guess I couldn’t just leave that.

So what I’ve done is built a service, which is, I’ve called it Unpacking After Baby. And the reason I called it that, was I don’t limit it to the birth. So it’s not just unpacking the birth, it’s unpacking after having a baby, because it’s recognizing that these emotional consequences can occur from any part of that process of having a baby. So even trying to conceive a baby that can be really distressing for some people, the pregnancy, and that happened to me, my trauma began in pregnancy, but my birth was fantastic. And then obviously, one in three women will identify their birth is a traumatic experience. And then having a baby in itself, you know, those weeks and months postpartum can be incredibly distressing or emotionally upsetting as well. So that’s why it’s called after baby and the unpacking part, what I’m aiming to do is go a little bit further than what might be called a traditional birth debrief.

It’s not a counselling service, but it’s looking at going further than a debrief itself. So what I want to do is help these people resolve their emotional distress. So we unpack the experience, we explore it, we try to understand and identify those key moments, I guess, that are contributing to those ongoing feelings, and then identify strategies that will help promote this post traumatic growth. That’s a term that I hadn’t really heard of before I had a baby. But I think many people have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder. Something we mentioned about before we did this podcast is post-traumatic stress disorder that, you know, it doesn’t sit with many people because we think well, that’s a war condition. I’m not a soldier, many people that hadn’t heard of post traumatic growth as well. So one of my biggest messages is you might have these feelings, just stress, you might have had an awful birth or a difficult postpartum experience, for example. But it’s really possible to resolve those feelings, and not just resolve them, but experience growth as a person as well. And I’m saying that because I’ve been through the process myself, took a lot of hard work, but I think it’s probably where I am. Why I’m where I am today. So yeah.


Yeah, I really love that term, post traumatic growth, because Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I guess it says what it is, but it’s sort of got like negative connotations, whereas post traumatic growth, it acknowledges the situation, and then it provides a Yeah, I love that word growth. And I was just saying to you off air, how I is my second birth, that was extremely fast. And for six months after the birth, I would wake up in the night thinking about the actual birth, it was a first thing I’d wake up in the morning, it was always on my mind, I kept talking to trying to talk to my husband about it. And I said to him, it’s almost as if I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But I didn’t want to say it was that because I felt that, you know, that’s something that people have when they go to war. You know, they have panic attacks, like really big symptoms, and mine weren’t, I could still function. Normally, I just couldn’t get it out of my brain for a good six months. So maybe I need a session with you.


And this is the thing I said to you off it the more I tapped into this, the bigger I realized it was, I mean, I already understood that you know, what looked like a textbook birth wasn’t necessarily a good birth, and certainly women that have done the work with me, you might look at them or ask them about their story and say, terrific, I’d have that pregnancy and birth and postpartum experience if I could. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s that well with them or that there weren’t emotional consequences. And I think what you described with your second birth being quick, you know, that’s something that many women would aspire to. Many midwives many obstetricians would say, what a great birth. But I think if we dig deep enough, having a baby is such a transformative, life changing event, that how can it not be something huge, even if it’s really, really good and goes physically well? How can it not have these ongoing effects on you, like you’ve said for six months and sometimes more?


And you’re right, it doesn’t matter what the situation was. It’s what your experiences that counts. So it doesn’t matter. As you said, if you had a textbook, amazing birth, your experience might still be totally different. And to be able to recognize that is, I think the first step to recovery.


The first step being identification, that’s probably one of the most difficult because we have all these terms like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and like you said, that didn’t sit with me, I didn’t identify it, or I didn’t want to, I felt like an imposter. So I think these terms that we have to sort of label things don’t fit with the majority of women, you know, after having a baby. So, in a sense, it is really hard to identify what’s going on.


So you just took the next question out of my mouth. So what are the steps to unpacking a birth story? So you’ve just mentioned identifying?


Yep, so I guess, the first step is recognizing that you have these ongoing consequences after having a baby. So it might be like you experienced these constant thoughts or intrusions into your life really, you know, through the night and first thing in the morning. That’s something that happened with me as well, I remember speaking with a psychologist, months down the track and saying, I cannot stop thinking about what happened to me, is that normal, and her response was, well, it’s your story. So to some degree, it is normal. But perhaps it was, for me also not perfectly normal in the context of everything that had happened and what was going on, in terms of unpacking, we need to first recognize that we need to unpack. And then you need to be able to connect with someone that can help you unpack, and that’s not necessarily me, I might not be the best fit for everyone, depending on what they want to achieve. Some hospitals will offer the service for some, some people after having a baby, the best person to unpack with is the people that were at the birth, or the significant event, you know, it’s not birth, it might be you know, a postpartum complication or pregnancy complication, reproductive assistance for trying to have a baby, for example, might be really something you’re struggling with, after it’s happened. But certainly connecting with someone a health professional that can help you unpack that experience. So help you understand what happened, why it happened, the factors that went into that, and actually, you know, what the root cause of your emotional feelings? And response to that is.


So that sounds great, what you just said, but I’m just thinking, who could have I unpacked with? You know, it’s tricky, like the obstetricians, busy. The midwives, once I finish their shift, they go, and you might not see them again. So who would you recommend?


So standard maternity care. So I’m talking about where you’re pregnant, you get seen by a midwife or an obstetrician, in a public or private health care setting, and you have your birth and your baby, generally, you’re discharged within a day or two after birth, you go home, you might have a visit or two from the midwife. And that’s it, the service then discharges you from your care. And you have to be then the driver, if you are keen on this debrief or unpacking, you have to then have the emotional capacity to get back in touch with them and request a service and go through the mechanisms of an incredibly complex healthcare system to try and nail down 15 minutes of this busy practitioner’s time, where they may be able to emotionally connect with you and understand what’s going on.

But in many cases, they’re so busy that they just physically and emotionally can’t. So while we want to when I was working in public health care, I really, really wanted to, but the system is just so constrained that we really don’t, at the moment have the capacity to acknowledge, let alone respond. And so that’s where I guess the flow on effect is what I was saying on social media, these huge amounts of women trying to reaching out with me and trying to get the service. And so in the end, I just couldn’t morally stand by and just keep saying no. So I had to build it, and it will keep evolving. I’m sure.


It’s amazing. I feel that this is in its infantile stage of recognition. Like I wouldn’t have felt confident or comfortable, or I wouldn’t have even perhaps acknowledged the need to talk to a health care professional because as you said, it was a textbook birth. But the more I guess we can all become a bit louder in this and if you’ve had a baby or before you have your baby saying is there someone I can talk to about my birth experience afterwards, the more we can talk about it and it can become a bit, why to recognize slowly? Yeah, commonplace, the change will happen. But until then, we’ve got gurus like yourself on Instagram.


That’s right. Yeah. God bless social media.


While we’re on the topic, what is your Instagram handle again?


@reallifemidwife, there’s no dots or underscores just yet.


So I’ve warned Helen that she might be in undated DMS after this, and you might have to quit your day job.


So right, I work by night too.


Okay, so we’ve talked about, I guess, the process of unpacking the birth story, which might be a bit complicated, but there’s a few steps to take if there’s no one. Is there anything that you can do by yourself, rather than calling upon someone else to help you out such as yourself? Are there any steps that you could try?


That is a really, really good question. And I think the answer probably depends on where the headspace is at the moment. So if this is just something that you’re mulling over in your head, the thoughts are going round and round, then I think it’s really possible for a person to stop and reflect on that. And what I tried to do is identify that root cause or experience, or maybe there’s multiples, that are triggering that. So what, what is the big thing that’s going on there? What is the thing that you’re worried about? What is the thing that keeps repeating? What is the thing that you’re struggling to understand or deal with?

To give an example, someone might be thinking what is the caesarean birth, but actually, when we dig deeper, or someone’s comment about the caesarean birth, or after the caesarean birth, or the surgery, for example. And so it’s that’s what that unpacking is it allows us to get to the bottom of it, once you’ve identified those factors, then we can address them. So if you can do that yourself, if you have the I guess the emotional headspace to be able to respond, then that’s absolutely the steps you can take yourself, what I’m seeing is with these women is that they are so at the point of distress that they can’t engage with that, and they need someone to facilitate that. And I actually think that’s a really strong thing to do, I think it’s a really safe thing to do to work with someone who can provide that safe space to explore those feelings.

It’s an interesting thing as well to think, well, someone could do this on their own, but why do they need someone to help them? And I think, you know, that’s what we’re uncovering here is that women accept these feelings, where they think I’m not worthy of this post-traumatic stress tag, I don’t identify with birth trauma. So therefore, I’m just going to keep on keeping on and hope that it goes away or hope that I feel better. And it doesn’t unfortunately, these things don’t tend to go away on their own, they snowball. And that’s where we get to this point of them contacting me. And so they’re it’s snowballed to a point where they need that facilitation.


So I guess, to be able to recognize that you need this, or that you want to unpack your birth story will hopefully help. And then if you seek help, or if you identify issues early, hopefully it will help to prevent that snowball effect. I’m so pro early treatment, or early recognition. And even in my area, if people understand that they need help. If they’ve got issues with pelvic floor incontinence prolapse, the sooner we can get onto those issues, then it just really helps with those long term ramifications for I guess it’s the same.


It’s exactly the same. Yep. And I think probably another thing I just want to point out is that for many people, it actually may not become a problem. And I’m saying that quotation marks, not necessarily a problem, but it might be sort of a subconscious thing that swirls around in your head and comes and goes, and you think, Oh, well, I’ll just pop that away. I don’t, I’ve got this new baby. And then, you know, months years down the track, you come to have another baby. And that’s when it actually surfaces. Oh, my goodness, I’m doing this again. What have I done? Have I got to go through that again? Is there anything I could do to avoid it? You know, instead of feeling thrilled about this new pregnancy, a new baby, there’s all of these emotional, distressing feelings going on. And so that is another thing that I’m seeing is that we tend to put these things aside, we put ourselves as a lower priority until it actually becomes a problem. And I know Jen Butler went public with her experience with me, and I’m sure she won’t mind me sharing that she will she reached out because she’s about to have her third baby and suddenly all of this unresolved stuff from her two previous birth experiences was coming up. And she was actually thinking, how on earth am I going to birth this baby?


I love it and to be able to as you said, it doesn’t, because you’ve got these feelings about your previous births, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to develop into problems, but it might just be taking up a bit of headspace. So if you can clear it out, it’s like becoming a bit more then like I went on my first ever retreat on the weekend. So I’m, I’m very relaxed. But actually, it’s been years, I can’t remember the last time I felt so clear in my mind, and just, I feel like I’ve got space in my brain. And I never would have thought before the retreat that I needed the retreat either. Whereas now I’m just like, oh, when can I book the next one?


And that’s the thing that I think we forget, we, you know, we don’t prioritize ourselves. And we forget those feelings, and how these women that go through the service, when we actually get into it, they think, gosh, this is really powerful. It’s not, you know, half an hour or an hour of feeling really negative and down and challenged. It’s actually Wow, this is so powerful. I suddenly feel really positive about this. And that’s, you know, when I talk about that term, post traumatic growth, that’s exactly what it is.


Yeah, it’s brilliant. I wish I’d had it eight years ago, six years ago, and three years ago. I wish every woman, I mean, I guess it’s so great we’re chatting today. I’m really excited because I guess for women to be able to identify that if their birth wasn’t the textbook amazing birth, then that’s okay. And they can grow from it. They might need a little bit of help, or even just the recognition and acceptance or whatever it is for them. But it’s very exciting that we’ve chatted today.


Yep, absolutely. Yeah. And I think from my own perspective, as someone I had a really traumatic, emotionally traumatic pregnancy. And I just remember going through this really long, distressing period and thinking, why is this happened to me? Why is this so bad? Why me? You know, what, what is the purpose of this? What’s the point? And I think, now I have my answer now, because I’ve been through the lowest point, but I’ve also experienced post traumatic growth. So I know what it’s like, I know what it’s like to have really negative feelings, and emotions swirling around in your head constantly. And I know now that you don’t have to put up with that you can actually turn them into really positive thoughts you can grow as a person, and probably the most important thing to me is learn to love your story. That’s your story. You know, it’s no one else’s.


Brilliant Helen. I wish I used to wish that every single woman would have a pelvic floor assessment after birth. I now wish that …


Why can’t we put the two together?


Exactly, let’s debrief and check your pelvic floor. It’d be amazing if that was just something for all women. So look, let’s look to the future.


And keep talking about it. And one day, maybe we can get it mainstream path of standard care, you know, and then I wouldn’t be needed.


Absolutely. And if you’re listening to this podcast, share it with a friend who’s pregnant or share it with a friend who’s had their baby, let’s spread the word that this is important and needed.


And it’s okay.


Absolutely. It’s okay. Thank you, Hellen, and thank you so much. I really do appreciate our chat today. Truly was beautiful. Thank you.


Thank you. Love talking about the topic, although at any time, I mean, to spread the word. And so thank you for giving me the platform to do so.


Thanks, Helen. We’ll speak soon.

And before I sign off, remember my team and I will be putting together the Show Notes for this episode, with all the links for how to connect with Helen at www.fitnestmama.com/podcast. And also don’t forget, if you found this episode useful, please do share it with a friend who might be pregnant or who has had their baby. Because as I said in the episode, I just wholeheartedly agree that if we are more aware of the power that unpacking our birth story can have on our growth. As a mum and a woman then it’s just amazing. So please do share it with your friends and let me know on social media send Helen and myself a DM. And let us know that you listened to this episode. We would both love to hear from you. Thank you, everyone and have a fabulous day and I look forward to you joining me next week for another episode of the FitNest Mama Podcast.

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