A few things you might not know, starting with the numbers:
A reported 27% of childbearing-aged women were sexually abused in childhood, and an estimated 40% including adolescent/teen years. According to LLLI, 90% of abusers are male, 70-90% are known to their victims; and for girls, 30-50% of abusers are family members.
These are just numbers. Numbers don’t speak, but many of the individuals behind the statistics are doing just that. Sexual abuse causes lasting trauma that cannot be isolated by a number; it follows the victim throughout life, and if this person is a woman on a path to motherhood it has many specific, new chances for recall of its memory. Pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding bring enhanced susceptibility to a woman’s life, leaving her in jeopardy of rewounding.
Karen Wood, PhD, who notes that 1 in 3 to 1 in 5 Canadian girls are sexually abused in childhood, observed in her paper “Infant feeding experiences of women who were sexually abused in childhood”:
“A history of [childhood sexual abuse] can affect a woman’s experience of breastfeeding, including acting as a trigger for remembering or re[-]experiencing the abuse. Women who were sexually abused as children need to experience a sense of safety, acceptance, sensitivity, and understanding.”
You might assume that women who were sexually abused would be more hesitant to attempt breastfeeding than other mothers, but in fact the opposite has been found to be true. In a nationally representative sample study, women who self-reported past sexual abuse were more than twice as likely to initiate breastfeeding. They also were found to breastfeed at the same rate as those without a history of past abuse.
However, women who were or are currently sexually abused are at greater risk for postpartum depression, disturbed sleep, and perinatal complications. Interestingly, exclusive breastfeeding has been shown in a study to reduce rates of depression and poor sleep among survivors, as compared with formula feedings and mixed feedings (read about the study’s background and a podcast interview with the author here).
Still, night feedings are often especially frightening for survivors of abuse. They may have an especially difficult time managing views of breasts as both sources of nourishment and sexual objects. They may also have significant anxiety around the exposure and vulnerability brought on by public nursing. Read More