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Overcoming the Past

Beth Dubois
Walla Walla WA USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 20 No. 2, March-April 2003, p. 50

As the time of my son's birth approached, my worries about breastfeeding came into sharp focus. I knew the benefits of breastfeeding and had plenty of book knowledge on the subject. I knew I wanted to breastfeed. I had been sexually abused when I was a child, however, and I was concerned. I worried that I would not be able to maintain the constant physical closeness breastfeeding would require and that breastfeeding might trigger memories of the abuse. I was especially distraught because I believed that I would be failing my child and myself if I were not able to breastfeed.

My midwives knew about what had happened and we had discussed it in terms of the birth, but I was ashamed and afraid to bring up the topic of how my background might affect breastfeeding. As is common with abuse survivors, I carried the shame of the abuse. Although this isn't logical, I was afraid that talking about my concerns would make them more likely to become a reality. I had trouble finding any information about survivors of sexual abuse and breastfeeding. I felt alone, as though I was the only one who had ever faced these issues. I knew I needed help.

I arranged for a meeting with a lactation consultant. She listened to my fears and reflections and gave me a lot of reassurance. She said that I had a great chance of successfully breastfeeding. Women who have been sexually abused sometimes have trouble tolerating the physical closeness breastfeeding requires, as was my fear for myself, but different women behave differently when faced with new motherhood as a survivor of abuse. Some lose confidence in their bodies and worry that they will not be capable of producing enough milk. For others, the physical sensations involved with breastfeeding may remind her of the abuse she suffered.

After speaking to the lactation consultant I felt much freer. My secret was out. I then felt comfortable discussing the issues with my midwives who were not at all surprised and had faced these same issues with other women before. I was so relieved. Both my shame and fear decreased.

My midwife, Ann, said that many women with abuse in their past and/or who do not feel comfortable with nipple stimulation by their partner have no problem with breastfeeding a baby. She said that the hormones released by breastfeeding make a woman able to tolerate and even enjoy the close contact with her baby. Our midwife, Valerie, told me that it was the love that mattered in feeding the baby, whether from breast or bottle. She said I should try to breastfeed and see what happened. Of course, I still desperately wanted to be able to breastfeed, but I felt less pressure after hearing her words.

At Valerie's suggestion, I took some time to write about my fears and realized that breastfeeding a baby really would be different than the abusive situation I was in as a child. My baby, tiny and in need of food, warmth, and love, would be totally different than the adult who had abused me. And as a breastfeeding mother, I would be in a totally different position than I was as a child suffering the abuse. Instead of being a small child overpowered by someone huge and terrifying, I would be a grown woman responding very naturally to my baby's needs. These insights gave me hope that I would succeed at breastfeeding.

My birthing experience was an amazing opportunity for healing. During the labor and birth, I experienced an incredible power moving through my body and was able to open myself to it. I tapped into a deep level of confidence and certainty in myself, expressing my needs unabashedly. During the contractions I chanted, "Om" to cope with the pain. As the contractions became more intense, my sounds became louder and longer. As I released these powerful sounds I felt a deep and miraculous purging of negative feelings left by the abuse. I was amazed at the "clearing out" that was happening prior to my baby's descent through the birth canal. And, unlike the abuse during which I "left" my body, during the labor and birth I was fully present. I felt incredible awe and power as I pushed and our baby was born. Valerie immediately placed him on my belly and I was amazed at how solid and strong he was. About 20 minutes later Ann helped me to nurse him. He knew exactly what to do, which thrilled and amazed me and gave me the confidence that breastfeeding would work out for us.

I had a stressful first few weeks getting used to breastfeeding. I was so worried it somehow might not work out. I worried about whether Theodore's latch-on was correct. I leaked huge amounts of milk. I struggled with engorgement. I began to feel physically weak and emotionally overwhelmed five days after the birth. But with a lot of support from my husband, friends, neighbors, and midwives, Theodore and I got into a good rhythm with breastfeeding, my physical strength gradually returned, and I accepted that adjusting to motherhood would take me some time.

For the most part, I was able to tolerate the nearly constant physical closeness that my baby required. Occasionally, I felt overwhelmed at having him attached to my breast so often. During those times I sometimes imagined that the milk was flowing right out of my chest wall into him rather than coming out of my breast. I would concentrate on the sound and feeling of the milk gushing out of me and him gulping it down. This visualization helped me forget about my breast and the emotional discomfort I was having with his suckling. I imagined myself giving him a person to person, life-generating transfusion.

I was amazed and grateful to find that most of the time I relished the physical closeness with Theodore. He wanted either to be held or nursed day and night. Although it was exhausting to carry and nurse him constantly and I did not experience the kind of productivity I was used to in the working world, I was surprised at how often I felt a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. I attribute this, in large part, to the mothering hormones released as a result of the frequent breastfeeding and nearly constant physical contact. I was surprised to find that my need to be with him was just as intense as his need to be with me.

As Theodore has grown, I continue to take note of any aspects of our breastfeeding relationship that may be uncomfortable for me and seek to make adjustments as necessary. The key for me with toddler breastfeeding has been to make sure that I am comfortable emotionally and physically. I notice that when he is breastfeeding with the intention of drinking milk, usually the milk flows easily and his suck is comfortable for me. But sometimes when he "hangs out" on the breast I find it irritating. At these times he is usually willing to accept a snack, story, or outing instead of nursing. He often seems to appreciate a substitution for breastfeeding because it actually better meets his current need for attention, food, drink, or interesting activity.

Of course, there are moments when I'm not keen on breastfeeding him but I can tell he has a real need. I do nurse him then, but with awareness. Rather than sinking into feeling like a victim, I remember that I'm his mother, a grown woman, choosing to meet my toddler son's needs. Then, as I watch him nurse and see the relaxation and reprieve it brings him, and the relaxation it brings me, my choice is affirmed. Sometimes, when I'm nursing a bit reluctantly, it helps if I read while breastfeeding. Reading helps me feel that I'm giving something to myself as I nurse Theodore. At other times I find that focusing fully on Theodore helps me shift into more positive feelings. As I stay attuned to my own needs and comfort level and give them important consideration in our breastfeeding relationship, I am taking good care of myself and teaching Theodore about healthy relationships.

I now see that not only has breastfeeding been possible for me, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, it has been immensely healing. My desire to have a fulfilling breastfeeding relationship forced me to face emotional territory I would probably have otherwise avoided. One wound left by the abuse is an underlying sense of "I can't do it. It's not even worth trying." Birthing and breastfeeding Theodore has helped to replace this with a very real sense of capability and confidence. Also, the heightened sensitivity to both myself and my son, which I gained through our breastfeeding relationship, serves us inother ways, especially now that Theodore is in the "terrific twos."

Last updated Tuesday, October 24, 2006 by njb.
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