Turning The Corner: Breastfeeding and Sexual Assault

Rebecca nursing her babyRebecca “Beck” McCormick, Fairfax City, Virginia

***Trigger warning; Article discusses sexual assault***

It had been eight years since my assault when my baby was born. I had spent almost 10 months working to acknowledge that my body was doing something amazing and wonderful and that it was okay to be proud of it. Then, all of a sudden, I had a baby.

I hadn’t thought about how the rape would affect breastfeeding. I hadn’t really thought about breastfeeding at all. I had watched the breast crawl videos. I had done a bit of reading. I knew conceptually that it was something that I would do.

But the reality of nursing didn’t match up at all with my expectations.

It was harder than I expected. It hurt more than I expected. He nursed more than I expected. All of these things were complicated by a lack of knowledgeable support. While my well-meaning spouse and my no-nonsense mother tried to help, I got increasingly frustrated. Looking back, here are some things that I wish I had known and that may help other sexual assault survivors who wish to breastfeed.

Talk to your healthcare providers. Telling your healthcare providers than you are a sexual assault survivor can help. All too often, nurses or well-intentioned lactation consultants may touch, grab, or position your breasts without asking. This can be incredibly triggering. A support person also can help with this by running interference. If you meet with a breastfeeding helper, tell them that you would prefer hands-off explanations. They can help by showing you photos, demonstrating with a doll, or verbally coaching you through a step-by-step process.

You may have complicated feelings about your breasts and nursing. I really wanted to nurse. It was the only option in my mind. That didn’t make it easier, though. I loved that my breasts were making milk for my child! I loved that he was getting bigger and bigger from my milk alone. But I really hated breastfeeding at times. I hated that he was always hungry. I hated each time someone would say, “I think he needs to nurse again” as his head bobbed up and down in search of a breast. I hated that he needed to be on me skin-to-skin at all times. Several ways to manage these feelings include:

  • Acknowledge that these feelings are okay. Many people have complicated feelings about nursing and mothering.
  • Talk to other parents about your feelings.
  • Distract yourself with movies, shows, or games that you like.
  • Establish small acts of self-care throughout the day.
  • Keep the big picture in mind. The newborn phase is an intense time, but it is over relatively quickly.

Night feeding may be especially hard. I hated being touched in the dark. While the early morning hours are hard for any new parent, they presented a unique challenge that I only recognized later. Sometimes, I would wake up to my baby’s nails scratching at my skin. The revulsion I felt was extreme. Some things you can do include:

  • Keep a small light on throughout the night to prevent waking up in total darkness, which can lead to confusion.
  • Have a meditation or mantra to remind yourself of where you are (“I am safe. This is my baby.”)
  • Play music or the TV in the background to distract you as necessary.
  • Use socks on baby hands to keep nails and fingers from pinching or scratching.
  • Swaddle your baby. Be sure to understand the various cons of swaddling before you decide to do so.*

*The La Leche League International Safe Sleep Seven recommends unswaddling your baby when your baby is sleeping: http://llli.net/sweetsleepbook/thesafesleepseven

Don’t accept nursing pain as normal. It was especially hard for me to take my own nursing pain seriously. I thought that it was normal and expected and was told the same by people close to me. If you are experiencing nipple pain above the level you might experience with a sunburn, seek breastfeeding help from La Leche League (LLL).

Rebecca wearing her baby in a carrier, smiling at the cameraNursing a toddler can be hard too. At times, nursing a toddler was almost as bad for me as nursing a newborn. Having a toddler pulling at my clothes and demanding to nurse whether I wanted to or not was its own challenge. I used this opportunity to teach him bodily autonomy as well as nursing manners.

Know when to ask for help. If things are becoming too hard, ask for help. Ask for help from a partner, friend, or family member at night. Ask an LLL Leader for emotional support. Join an online parenting community where someone will always be up in the middle of the night showing you that you aren’t alone. Ask for help from a therapist if you feel you need it. Nursing and parenting can bring up complicated feelings that previously you thought you had moved past.

Look at the positives. Like many new parents, my experience with nursing a newborn was incredibly hard, but it got easier quickly. Within four weeks, I felt like a pro, and most of my anxiety about nursing melted away. Breastfeeding became a wonderful way to nourish my baby and also a great parenting tool. In addition, breastfeeding was a big part of how I turned the corner and embraced my body after sexual assault.

Please send your story ideas to Amy at [email protected].

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