Catastrophic thinking: Is it the legacy of traumatic births? Midwives’ experiences of shoulder dystocia complicated births

Published:September 03, 2020DOI:



      Shoulder dystocia (SD) is considered one of the most traumatic birth experiences not only for women, but for clinicians involved as well. Adverse effects of birth trauma on the emotions and psyche of midwives have been well established.


      To explore the impact of SD, as a birth trauma, on midwives’ orientation towards normal births and on their clinical practice and the factors which may deteriorate or improve the experience of SD.


      In a qualitative descriptive study design, 25 in-depth interviews were undertaken with Australian midwives who had experienced at least one case of SD. Data were analysed thematically.


      A total of four themes emerged: 1) an unforgettable birth; a wake-up call, 2) from passion to caution, 3) factors worsening the experience, and 4) factors soothing the experience. Fear, anxiety and doubt about their professional competence were the most common feelings experienced by midwives after SD. For many, the first exposure to SD left them contemplating their previous attitude towards normal birth. Disturbed orientation of normal birth shifted midwives towards hypervigilance in practice. Not having effective relationships with women and receiving poor support from colleagues were perceived to worsen the traumatic experience, whereas working in a midwifery continuity of care model and the sense of being appreciated improved midwives’ experience after the trauma.


      Shoulder dystocia is a birth emergency that midwives will inevitably experience. Involvement in such births can potentially direct midwives towards a ‘worst case scenario’ mentality and affect the way they provide care for women in future.


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