Breastfeeding After CSA

The first week of August was World Breastfeeding Awareness Month, but the United States Breastfeeding Committee has declared the whole month of August Breastfeeding Awareness Month. In honour of that, I wanted to share a few thoughts on breastfeeding after the mother has suffered Child Sexual Abuse. 

While so many of us want to breastfeed, and spend our pregnancies imagining doing just that – and, indeed, preparing for it, it’s not always that easy. Aside, altogether, from the issues and difficulties that many women without a history of CSA encounter, there are additional difficulties that may manifest if the new mum has such a history.  Here are a few of them: 

  • If our breasts were a focal point of our abuse, we may be reluctant to offer, or share them, with anyone else – even our own babies. The physical contact may be just too much.

  • Dissociation is something I’ve discussed on this blog before – it’s often a huge part of our experiences when we are being abused. Dissociation, sadly, can also be part of our experiences when we’re breastfeeding – which can effect the bonding that is a positive element of breastfeeding. This, in turn, can lead to further shame and guilt around our bodies.

  • There are three kinds of touch that can be difficult for a woman with a history of Child Sexual Abuse: self-touch, touch of another, and medical touch. Breastfeeding is, often, comprised of all three: The touch of the mother’s own hand on her breast – before, during, and after, a feed; the touch of the baby on the mother’s breasts; and the manipulation of the mother’s breasts by a lactation consultant in order to assist with a latch etc.

  • Bodily fluids may be disgusting to the new mother who associates such fluids with abuse. This can include her own breastmilk.

  • The shame that Child Sexual Abuse visits on a woman, on her body, and on her sense of self can be mirrored in the shame that attaches to ‘bodies on display’ in many parts of the world. Then, there is the fact that  many societies visit shame on women who breastfeed in public, adding to the difficulty.

  • The mouth of her child on her breast can be triggering for the new mother with a history of Child Sexual Abuse. It may remind her too much of her abuser/s slobbering all over her breasts.

  • If her birth didn’t go how she planned, the new mother may well have the old tape of ‘I can’t do anything right’, and / or ‘My body does everything wrong’ playing in her head. This may mean that she is convinced she can’t breastfeed her baby, either – so she may not even try.

  • If breastfeeding is difficult – or impossible – for the survivor of Child Sexual Abuse, it can add to her feelings of guilt, and of the fact that her body is ‘failing’ her.

It’s not all bad, though. For many women who were sexually abused as children, managing to breastfeed successfully can be a hugely healing experience. It is a(nother) example of her body ‘behaving’ properly; of her body doing what it’s supposed to do.

If you are supporting a new mother who has a history of Child Sexual Abuse, there are things you can do to help:

  • Reassure her that her choices are valid.

  • Reassure her that she is not being judged.

  • Reassure her that there are myriad other ways to love her baby.

  • If she really wants to breastfeed, but cannot bear the idea of her breasts being touched, discuss using a pump and expressing milk for exclusive breastfeeding. Inform her of the existence of the human milk in Fermanagh.

  • Help her to see her milk as a ‘good’ / ‘useful’ fluid.

  • Remind her that she birthed beautifully, and that she can breastfeed beautifully, too – with help and support.

  • Encourage her to attend La Leche League, or Cuidiú meetings while she’s still pregnant.

The transition to motherhood is a monumental one for every woman, but it can be harder for those of us with a history of Child Sexual Abuse. The same is true of breastfeeding. Being sensitive to the possibilities can make the experience so much easier, so much more fulfilling, and so much more empowering, for these women.