Original Article

Archives of Women's Mental Health

, Volume 15, Issue 4, pp 289-296

First online:

Patterns of attention and experiences of post-traumatic stress symptoms following childbirth: an experimental study

  • Vanessa Dale-HewittAffiliated withClinical Psychology Unit, University of SheffieldInternational House, Institute of Work Health and Organisation, University of Nottingham Email author 
  • , Pauline SladeAffiliated withClinical Psychology Unit, University of Sheffield
  • , Ingram WrightAffiliated withNeurology Unit, Neuropsychology Department, North Bristol NHS Trust
  • , Michelle CreeAffiliated withThe Beeches, Mother and Baby Unit, Psychiatric Unit, Derby City Hospital
  • , Chris TullyAffiliated withCentral/Greater Derby PCT’s NHS

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Childbirth for some women can be experienced as a traumatic event whereby it is appraised as threatening to life and associated with feelings of fear, helplessness or horror. These women may develop symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder or its sub-clinical symptoms (post-traumatic stress, PTS). Cognitive processes such as attentional biases have been identified in individuals with PTS exposed to other traumatic events. This study used an experimental design (the modified Stroop task) to investigate the relationship between attentional biases and PTS symptoms in 50 women who experienced their labour and delivery as stressful and responded with fear, helplessness and horror. Attentional biases away from childbirth words were significantly associated with both symptoms of post-traumatic stress and more negative experiences of childbirth. A negative experience was also associated with more severe symptoms of PTS. Positive experiences were unassociated with attentional biases or symptoms. Post-traumatic stress responses, in this population, may be associated with avoidance, and through influencing cognitive processing, acting as a maintaining factor of distress.


Childbirth Post-traumatic stress symptoms Attentional bias