A mum is hoping to raise awareness about birth trauma after being left with "life-changing" incontinence due to injuries sustained in labour.
Leonnie Downes, 31, from Chorley, Lancashire, was excited to be welcoming a baby with her wife Emma Downes, 34.
But when she fell ill with sepsis during labour and her unborn baby’s heart rate increased, doctors had to deliver baby George via forceps.
The difficult birth left Leonnie with a third-degree tear, a tear which extends to the muscle that controls the anus, and she now struggles with severe bowel incontinence and urgency, meaning she can’t be away from a toilet for long and has to carefully plan anything involving her leaving the house.
Leonnie now requires further treatment and surgery to try to help ease her symptoms, and says the experience has taken its toll on her both physically and mentally.
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Recalling developing sepsis during her labour on February 2, 2017, Leonnie, who runs a personalised clothing business, says: "His [George's] heart rate was going up. I was very incoherent and it ended in a forceps delivery.
"My wife was holding George and I said ‘I don’t know if I’m going to make it'. I thought I was going to die."
The new mum was put on antibiotics to clear the infection and both her and George remained in hospital until her condition had stabilised.
But after being allowed home, Leonnie started to struggle with incontinence and bowel urgency.
While she initially dismissed it as a "normal" part of the post-birth process, Leonnie's symptoms continued to worsen and she would find herself having regular accidents.
It got to the point when she was unable to cope without the support of Emma, who had gone back to work as a bookings manager.
"I’d wait outside her work with George for eight hours," Leonnie explains. "I found life quite overwhelming. I thought every mum dealt with this. I thought it was normal."
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Scared to leave the house for fear of an accident, Leonnie had to ensure she was always near a toilet.
Leonnie found herself always near a toilet and scared to leave the house for fear of an accident happening.
Eventually, 18 months after the birth she went to see a doctor, but was initially told there was nothing wrong.
After going back again in June 2020 she was diagnosed with a third-degree tear, but had to wait until January 2023 for surgery to help repair the tear due to delays caused by Covid.
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Unfortunately, doctors were unable to repair the tear and are now looking into further treatment options for Leonnie, such as rectal nerve stem stimulation or a stoma bag.
In November 2017 Emma gave up her job to care for Leonnie and George, now six, and the family are learning to adapt to Leonnie's medical needs.
"I know everywhere in the local area where there is a toilet," she explains. "I have got a bag of my clothes with me when I go out. Everything is planned."
The couple had wanted to expand their family but after the trauma of the first birth and danger to Leonnie if she were to give birth again neither feel they can have another child.
Leonnie is now living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which she believes was caused by the birth, which has had an impact on her mental health, culminating in an attempt to take her life in 2019.
"I have severe anxiety about leaving the house, so I don't go out a lot," she says.
"I also have nightmares about bowel incontinence or the birth. It’s life-changing."
The experience has also impacted the couple's relationship.
"It nearly ruined my marriage," Leonnie explains. "My wife has gone from my wife to carer. But she’s been incredible – I couldn’t ask for a better wife."
Leonnie has chosen to share her story to help stop women from feeling "embarrassed" after their birth trauma.
"My whole life has changed," she adds. "It’s been incredibly embarrassing because it’s not talked about."
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What is birth trauma?
From forceps births leading to severe tears, to postpartum haemorrhages, and a baby born unwell and needing special care, there are many reasons why the birth experience might be traumatic.
Research shows that about 4-5% of women who give birth develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares and extreme anxiety that make daily life immensely challenging. That’s about 30,000 women a year in the UK.
Many more have some trauma symptoms, but not enough for a PTSD diagnosis. The Birth Trauma Association uses the term "birth trauma" to cover everyone who feels that their traumatic birth is continuing to affect them.
Last week MP Theo Clarke spoke about her own birth trauma as part of a parliamentary debate and called for the government to add it to the women's health strategy.
Following the debate, the Government has announced a national NHS plan to tackle birth injuries, offering future funding of £11 million.
Health Minister Steve Barclay has made a number of announcements for change including a National Pelvic Health service which rolls out support and education for mums, and birth injury training for midwives in all NHS England hospital trusts.
If you’re a parent who’s been traumatised by birth, you can contact the Birth Trauma Association at email@example.com or telephone 0203 621 6338.
Additional reporting SWNS.