Booby Traps Series: How a History of Sexual Abuse Affects Breastfeeding

When Survivors Give Birth, breastfeeding and early sexual abuseIf Penny Simkin, author of When Survivors Give Birth, is right, between 25% and 40% of all women may be survivors of early sexual abuse.

And if that’s the case, many women of child-bearing age may face an often invisible barrier to breastfeeding.

You would think that histories of abuse would cause the rates of breastfeeding among survivors to be lower, but in fact they are comparable – or even higher than -the rates among non-survivors.

We also know anecdotally that some moms must fight against the long arm of their abuse to do it.  “For many survivors,” Penny Simkin writes, “some of the greatest challenges in the postpartum period occur with breastfeeding.”  And those challenges may be faced alone, as fear, shame, and stigma may lead mothers not to share their history with their providers and other support people.

If a woman’s abuse was related to her breasts, breastfeeding may (or may not) cause difficult feelings to emerge.  In some cases they’re strong enough to make a woman not want to breastfeed.  Penny Simkin noted in a podcast interview with me that survivors sometimes have “distorted” views of their body, and feel a strong need to have control over them.  This may lead to uncomfortable feelings about that sharing their bodies with their babies, who as we know can be demanding!  Sometimes the needs of the baby can even begin to feel like the demands of the perpetrator.  Mothers may feel that breastfeeding is form of abuse of the baby because the baby can’t consent, or that their bodies are dirty and incapable of making good milk.  Sometimes these connections are conscious and sometimes they aren’t, and sometimes they are strong enough to make women choose not to breastfeed.  And of course, sometimes these feelings don’t emerge at all.

We also know that for some women breastfeeding has the potential to be healing – a very powerful reclaiming of their bodies and self image.  In the words of one mother quoted in a study, “Breastfeeding has helped me overcome the negative image of myself and my body.”  Another mother described breastfeeding as “giving my breasts a positive story.”  And other mothers find breastfeeding a protective act by fostering close relationships with their children.

New research also shows that, while women with a history of sexual assault are at higher risk for sleep difficulties and depression in the first year having a baby, exclusive breastfeeding appears to offer some protection against these problems.

The authors found that “sexual assault survivors who were [exclusively] breastfeeding were at lower risk on all of the sleep and depression parameters than sexual assault survivors who were mixed or formula feeding.”

But all of this leaves some women in a tough spot.  Do you disclose your abuse in order to explain why you don’t want to breastfeed, or so that the care you get is takes into account your history?  Do you explain your specific breastfeeding problems to peers or providers who might not understand or know how to help?  If your abuser is still in your life, do you speak the truth to get help?  What do you do if your provider knows of your history and assumes that you won’t want to breastfeed?  What if the “medical touch” of a lactation consultant is disturbing?  If breastfeeding makes you feel very exposed, how do you do it in public?

There is cause to be optimistic.  Skilled and sensitive people like Penny Simkin have supported moms through breastfeeding challenges related to their abuse, and as the issue becomes better known, more will do the same.

My favorite story Penny tells is of breastfeeding mother who had survived early sexual abuse.  This mother found herself very disturbed by night feedings.  Her abuse had taken place at night, and being awakened by her baby to feed was eliciting disturbing feelings related to the abuse.  The solution they found?  Set an alarm clock.  Once the mother was awakened by the clock instead of a person, she was able to feed her baby at night without distress.

Another story she recounts in When Survivors Give Birth is of a breastfeeding woman who would recoil when her baby touched her other breast in the course of feeding.  Exploring this feeling with her lactation counselor led to her recalling early abuse related to her breasts, for which she sought counseling.  Her lactation counselor helped her find ways to prevent this behavior – a nursing necklace, wearing clothing, holding the baby’s hand – and she continued to breastfeed.

For other mothers, pumping may provide enough control over the process of providing milk for their babies that they can sustain lactation.  With the right support, creative solutions can sometimes be found.

With acceptance, sensitivity, and understanding – qualities of care everyone deserves – providers, breastfeeding support people, and peers can support survivor moms who want to breastfeed.  

Did you or someone you know breastfeed after sexual abuse?  As a support person, have you worked with breastfeeding women who are survivors?  How did it affect their experience, if at all?

6 thoughts on “Booby Traps Series: How a History of Sexual Abuse Affects Breastfeeding

  1. Wonderful article… I am a psychotherapist who works primarily with pregnant/postpartum childhood sexual abuse survivors, and really appreciate you putting this information out there for more women to understand how a history of abuse may (or may not) affect their breastfeeding experience.


  2. I was sexually abused as a young girl, by a family member. I had nearly forgotten it all until having my two babies. my son is now 3, & daughter 7 months. Breast feeding face me a closeness with my body I never had before. I feel so nurturing and beautiful. Being a girl who developed breasts very early, I was in a bra by 10 yrs old, it was relieving to see my body had a purpose other than sex . I do have difficulty with my son being at the age of self discovery and actually triggered memories I totally forgot. I’m considering counseling for the first time to talk about Mt trauma


    1. Cailey:
      Thanks for sharing your story. It is good to hear the story of a survivor that found some measure of healing through motherhood. Please do try to get counseling and work through your feelings as a survivor. You DESERVE the healing process, but also that healing process will make you a stronger mother for those two beautiful children. I am not personally a survivor of childhood abuse, but my mother and her sisters were abused terribly throughout their childhood by their father. I’m not sure what terrible demons she may have had to face when she met and married my father, nor what strength she found when she began having children. But I do know that she had many children, and each of us has a different perspective due to her ongoing emotional trauma. I am happy to say that my younger siblings have a much more positive experience to relate than her older children do, simply because she was finally able to get counseling and work through some of the horrors she had kept bottled up for so many years. When reading your story, it made me realize that perhaps my mother finally found the strength to share her trauma with a counselor, precisely because of her motherhood. In those days, there was a much greater stigma attached to talking about one’s abuse, and going to a professional had it’s own stigma attached. It is through the bravery of those like yourself and my mother that more resources are available to survivors than ever before. Hopefully through education we will help eradicate the darkness in society that allows these monsters to victimize repeatedly and get away with it.


  3. Thank you for writing this sensitive article. I experienced some SA as a teenager by a family friend and I’m currently pregnant. I’m currently more worried about breastfeeding than child birth due to all the public health pressure and strong promotion that ‘good’ mothers breast feed. I really think a better balance could be struck between promoting and providing support to breast feed while taking into account the history and feelings of the mother, and broader family. My biggest fear is grabby midwives and lactation consultants forcing examinations and assistance on me.


  4. I experienced long term SA in my first relationship and although I have a very healthy and amazing relationship with my husband, being pregnant definitely brought back a lot of unwanted memories. I’ve always found that I am extremely sensitive on my nipples and I get a nauseating feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I breastfeed or even if my husband touches them. Could this be due to that experience of abuse? Are there other women that have that same feeling in the pit of their stomachs? I feel like I’m the only one. I hate that it happens and wish that I could get over it. I love breastfeeding and understand the amazing benefits, and I’m going to continue, but I hate feeling that way and wanting to burst into tears or recoil because of it…I’ve been to counselors and therapists and they don’t seem to give me advice that works 😦


    1. Me too! Exactly the same a nauseated feeling in the pit of my stomach.. I hate the feeling and have always struggled with it when my nips r stimulated. I’m trying to nurse through the sinking feeling and am hoping that maybe the sensation of nursing can even replace the abuse connection to nipple stimulation. Did it go away or get better for you? Glad I’m not alone.


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