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Women ‘suffer in silence’ from birth-related health issues

Pain, sexual problems, anxiety and depression uncovered by maternal health research

Research shows one in three mothers in Ireland suffered from pelvic girdle pain three months after giving birth, while one-half had experienced painful sex and one-quarter had not resumed sex. Photograph: Katie Collins/PA

Women in Ireland are experiencing a litany of birth-related hidden health problems affecting every aspect of their lives, according to a major new study of first-time mothers.

These include high levels of pain, sexual health problems, anxiety and depression, much of it unreported, the study of 2,600 mothers indicates.

One in three mothers in Ireland suffered from pelvic girdle pain three months after giving birth, while one-half had experienced painful sex and one-quarter had not resumed sex. Almost 60 per cent of mothers said they had leaked urine since giving birth and anal incontinence was reported by 12 per cent.

Anxiety was reported by 28 per cent of the new mothers while 18 per cent experienced depression at some point since giving birth.

The findings, which are interim, come from the Maternal Health and Maternal Morbidity in Ireland (Mammi) study, which includes almost 10 per cent of all first-time mothers in Ireland in a given year.

Principal investigator Prof Cecily Begley of Trinity College Dublin said the research shows many serious aspects of women’s health during and after pregnancy remain almost completely hidden.

Problems neglected

“Most of these conditions are preventable or treatable, yet women are not being asked about them during the first three months postpartum, a time at which they are in regular contact with healthcare professionals,” he said.

Two-thirds of GPs did not ask the mother about pelvic pain, 80 per cent did not inquire about sexual health problems and half failed to inquire about depression or anxiety. The incidence of pelvic pain during pregnancy was over 10 times the level of reporting of the problem in hospital records, the study found.

The rate of Caesarean sections among mothers was 31 per cent, of which 23 per cent were emergency sections and 8 per cent were elective. The main reason for an elective section was the baby presenting in breech position, while the main reasons for an emergency section were foetal distress during labour and a failed attempt to induce the baby.

Up to 3 per cent of women who had a Caesarean were readmitted to hospital, most often because of an abdominal wound infection.

Pelvic pain

A year after delivering a baby, one in three women still had persistent pelvic pain, 40 per cent had reduced sexual desire and one in five said sex was painful.

Dr Deirdre Daly, assistant professor of midwifery in TCD, said many women do not talk about their health problems or disclose them to a health professional, often because they have not heard of anyone else suffering from similar problems.

She was critical of a “lack of conversation” about new mothers’ health issues which means women “suffer in silence” and put up with problems that, if treated early, could prevent them persisting into later life.

Dr Daly said healthcare professionals needed to “find time” to ask women about their health issues. “The second issue is that we need to get this information out to women so that they can become informed, and inform each other.”

The only positive health impact of birth reported in the study is that pregnancy and birth appear to resolve difficulties women may have experienced with orgasm before they were pregnant.

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