When I checked myself into the emergency room, whispering under my breath that I was sexually assaulted and needed to file a police report, I didn't realize all the ways my life was about to be (and already was) forever altered. I didn't know that my sexual assault would change my future romantic relationships; I didn't realize that my sexual assault would change how I gave birth; I definitely didn't realize that my sexual assault would change my breastfeeding experience. Honestly, I was just trying to comprehend what had happened, and prepare myself for the necessary steps ahead. And while, after I became a mother, knew that I wanted to try breastfeeding my son for as long as possible, I didn't realize that surviving a sexual assault years prior would make that attempt much, much, harder.
I honestly thought enough time had passed that the edges of my initial trauma would be softened enough as to not poke holes in my now fortified memory bank. It had been two years since I was examined and pieces of my clothing were bagged and pictures of my body parts were categorized and statements were made. It had been two years since the detective informed me that there wasn't enough evidence to go to trial. It had been two years of healing and counseling and strength and reasons to laugh again and a new, healthy relationship and a surprise pregnancy, ending with the birth of my son. I honestly didn't think that, when my son latched so effortlessly and started eating so easily, my breastfeeding issues were just starting. I didn't realize that the act of breastfeeding would sharpen the edges of my trauma and memories would pore out of my mind and in front of my eyes and I'd start to re-live a moment I had been trying tirelessly to forget.
My breastfeeding experience is why, to this day and always, you'll never hear me say, "Breast is best." I understand the benefits of breastfeeding and know that it can be a great bonding experience and alleviate financial hardships and just be a wonderful overall experience for both mother and child, but it can also be a trigger for the estimated 293,000 women who are sexually assault every year in the United States. While not all of those women will choose to become mothers, and not all of those mothers will choose to breastfeed, and of those women who do choose to breastfeed, not all of them will have issues (as there are plenty of sexual assault survivors who don't have any problems breastfeeding, and even say breastfeeding helped them heal from their trauma) a sexual assault can change a woman's breastfeeding experience. Here are just a few ways how:
There Are Numerous Long-Term Effects Of Sexual Abuse
The effects of sexual assault are not short term. They do not end once a report is filed or an exam is administered or a potential trial has ended. No, the effects of sexual assault can last forever, and affect an estimated 20% of adult survivors. Everything from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to long-lasting emotional stress to an impaired sense of self to interpersonal difficulties can be experienced by a sexual assault survivor, and all of those long-term effects can alter how successful a mother is at breastfeeding.
Currently, an estimated 11% of all sexual assault survivors are diagnosed with PTSD in the United States, a harrowing 1.3 million American women.
Any Pain Associated With Breastfeeding Can Be A Trigger
A possible trigger for sexual assault survivors is physical pain and, well, breastfeeding can be painful. If a breastfeeding sexual assault survivor starts to feel pain associated with the act (whether it be nipple pain or an infection or her baby's teeth) she can experience PTSD symptoms and flashbacks of her assault. I, personally, re-experienced my abuse every time my son breastfed during the first few weeks of his life. I was a new mother who had never breastfed before, so the act of breastfeeding was painful and with each session, I relived my assault.
In fact, even skin-to-skin contact and the sensation of expressing milk can cause a breastfeeding mother who has survived sexual assault, to experience triggers and flashbacks. The act of breastfeeding doesn't always have to be painful to trigger PTSD symptoms.
Losing Control Of Your Body Feels Uncomfortable And Scary
When I was breastfeeding, I couldn't help but feel (much like with my pregnancy) like I wasn't in complete control of my body. The loss of complete body autonomy directly contributed to my PTSD, as I was made to feel helpless, even though I could rationally remind myself that I was choosing to breastfeed my son. It was a very strange, juxtaposing situation: I was making a choice and deciding to do something for myself (and my baby) yet I felt like I had absolutely no control at all and, that loss of control, made me feel like my assault was happening all over again.
It Can Distance A Mother From Her Baby
Another long-term side effect of sexual assault is avoidance, or the reducing and/or circumventing emotional pain associated with abuse-related experiences or recollections in order to cope. As a way to maybe "push through" the difficulty of breastfeeding as a sexual assault survivor, the breastfeeding mother may avoid talking about her feelings, or talking to anyone in general. Some women say they're even able to "numb" certain parts of their body, so they don't have to feel the sensations associated with any act. It's another way the survivor essentially removes herself, mentally and physically, from the situation in order to get through it.
It Can Increase Your Chance Of Experiencing Postpartum Depression
Mothers who have experienced sexual assault are at a higher risk for postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder. Women who have also been diagnosed with depression (rape victims are three times more likely to experience a major depressive episode than those who haven't been abused) or anxiety are at a higher risk of experiencing postpartum depression.
If a mother is diagnosed with postpartum depression and is put on antidepressants, chances are she will no longer be able to breastfeed, due to the medication she is now on. The ability to breastfeed is literally stripped from her, as her mental health becomes the top priority (as it should, in my opinion).
A Mother Can Experience Cognitive Distortions
Cognitive disorders change the framework of any one person's way of thinking. For sexual assault survivors, this could be the belief that the world is inherently dangerous, or that they're ill-equipped and powerless to fight against inevitable danger or pain. A mother who has survived sexual assault may downplay her self-worth, claiming she's simply unable to protect and provide for her baby. When breastfeeding is difficult and you have a steadfast belief that you can't change that fact, breastfeeding becomes damn near impossible.
Physical Trauma Can Inhibit Breastfeeding
Women who have experienced sexual assault and/or rape are more likely to experience the following physical symptoms: frequent feelings of fatigue, obesity, severe PMS, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pelvic pain, frequent headaches, frequent vaginal infections, trouble sleeping and overall less satisfaction with their physical health. For women who end up pregnant after experiencing a sexual assault, they're at a greater risk for experiencing longer labors, longer pregnancies, higher birth weights, more terminations, earlier age at first pregnancy, more medical problems, greater stress during pregnancy and more use of ultrasound.
The physical long-term side effects can be detrimental to a pregnancy and a woman's postpartum experience. If a mother experienced a traumatic labor and delivery (in part or solely because she's a sexual assault survivor) she may have problems breastfeeding, or might choose not to breastfeed at all. A mother's journey with breastfeeding truly starts way before her baby is born and she attempts the first latch. There are so many factors that can contribute to a woman's breastfeeding success.
Can Shut A Mom Down And Keep Her From Seeking Help
If I could go back and do my breastfeeding journey all over again I would, but with one monumental difference: I would ask for help. I felt like I couldn't speak out about my PTSD or my triggers or anything that could (in my mind) hint that I wasn't enjoying my new role as "mom." Now, I realize that I was shutting down and trying to cope as best I could, only that coping mechanism left me feeling isolated, broken and resulted in postpartum depression.