For adult survivors of sexual abuse or assault, breastfeeding can be difficult. It is sad to say that sexual trauma is relatively common, affecting approximately 20 to 25 percent of women.
Abuse survivors can experience a full range of reactions to breastfeeding: from really disliking it to finding it tremendously healing.
Some people assume that survivors of sexual trauma do not want to breastfeed. But that is not what researchers have found. The authors of two research studies found that abuse survivors were more likely while pregnant to plan to breastfeed and to start breastfeeding once their baby was born than women who had not been abused (Benedict, Paine & Paine, 1994; Prentice et al., 2002). And sexual trauma survivors breastfeed at almost exactly the same rates as women with no history of trauma (Bowman, Ryberg, & Becker, 2009).
If you are an abuse survivor who wants to breastfeed, I congratulate you for making a positive life choice to overcome your past and parent well. But I also acknowledge that you may face some unique challenges. I am talking about both sexual abuse and assault in this post because I have found that both can make a difference.
Sexual abuse is something that can happen within your family and can include everything from fondling to rape. Sexual assault often occurs outside the family and can also include attacks by peers. I have found that women have similar reactions to both of these experiences. Even if the sexual abuse did not happen in your family, your family may have been impaired in other ways, such as parental depression, partner violence or alcoholism, which could have increased your vulnerability to sexual assault.
Tackling the difficulties
If you are having a hard time with breastfeeding, I have some specific suggestions that mothers have shared with me over the years. But mostly I suggest you give yourself permission to do whatever works and helps you. If you are having difficulties, your first step is to try to figure out what makes you uncomfortable. Is it nighttime feeding? Is it your baby touching other parts of your body while nursing? Is it latching on? Is it the intense skin-to-skin contact? Is it all of those things? The intense physical contact of breastfeeding may be very uncomfortable for trauma survivors in general. You might find breastfeeding painful because your experiences of abuse have lowered your pain threshold. The act of breastfeeding may also trigger flashbacks. There is a whole range of possible things that might be uncomfortable for you. If you’re not sure, try keeping a diary for a week or so to see if you can identify some specific triggers.
Once you identify the trigger, the next step is to figure out, if you can, how to deal with it. For example, if skin-to-skin contact is bothering you, can you put a towel or cloth between you and the baby? Can you avoid the feedings that make you uncomfortable? Nighttime feedings are often a candidate. Would you, for example, be more comfortable if you pumped and fed your baby with a bottle? Can you hold baby’s other hand while breastfeeding to keep her from touching your body? Can you distract yourself while breastfeeding by reading, watching TV, or looking at your phone? Many mothers have told me that these sorts of distraction work well for them. Experiment to find out what helps.
Remember that some breastfeeding is better than none. Whether you are able to fully breastfeed or not, every little bit helps. Even if you must pump milk and use a bottle; even if you are only breastfeeding once a day. Some abuse survivors find that they never love breastfeeding, but they learn to tolerate it enough to meet their own goals. Being able to tolerate breastfeeding might be a realistic goal for you.
I have known many abuse survivors who have gone on to become wonderful mothers. I am confident that you can, too. Past abuse does not have to be the blueprint for the rest of your life.
Benedict, M.I., Paine, L. Paine, L. (1994). Long-term Effects of Sexual Abuse in Childhood on Psychosocial Functioning in Pregnancy and Pregnancy Outcome. Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.
Kendall-Tackett, K.,Cong, Z., Hale, T.W. (2013). Depression, sleep quality, and maternal well-being in postpartum women with a history of sexual assault: a comparison of breastfeeding, mixed-feeding, and formula-feeding mothers. Breastfeeding Medicine, 8(10), 16-22.
Dr. Kendall-Tackett is a health psychologist and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, and the owner and Editor-in-Chief of Praeclarus Press, a small press specializing in women’s health. She is Editor-in-Chief of two peer-reviewed journals: Clinical Lactation and Psychological Trauma. She is Fellow of the American Psychological Association in Health and Trauma Psychology, Past President of the APA Division of Trauma Psychology, and a member of the Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest. Dr. Kendall-Tackett specializes in women’s-health research including breastfeeding, depression, trauma, and health psychology, and has won many awards for her work including the 2016 Outstanding Service to the Field of Trauma Psychology from the American Psychological Association’s Division 56.
Dr. Kendall-Tackett has authored more than 400 articles or chapters, and is currently completing her 35th book, The Phantom of the Opera: A Social History of the World’s Most Popular Musical. Her most recent books include: Depression in New Mothers, 3rd Edition (2016, Routledge UK, in press), Women’s Mental Health Across the Lifespan (2016, Routledge US, in press, with Lesia Ruglass), Psychology of Trauma 101 (2015, Springer, with Lesia Ruglass) and The Science of Mother-Infant Sleep (2014, Praeclarus, with Wendy Middlemiss). Her websites are: