Written by Dr. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett PHD, IBCLC, FAPA
To me, some of the most exciting data is on breastfeeding’s effects for women who have survived sexual assault. Some assume that women who have had these kinds of experiences will not want to breastfeed.
However, two smaller previous studies found that women found that women who had histories of child sexual abuse were more likely to say they wanted to breastfeed (Benedict, Paine, & Paine, 1994) and to initiate breastfeeding (Prentice, Lu, Lange, & Halfon, 2002).
This is not to say that it is always easy for these women.
But there are definite physiological benefits if they do.
Breastfeeding’s Healing Impact on Sexual Assault Trauma
In our data, we looked at the impact of rape, the most serious kind of contact sexual abuse. Thirteen percent of the women in our sample reported that they had been raped (994 women).
Some assume that women who have been raped will not want to breastfeed. We found just the opposite to be true. Women with a history of sexual assault had a rate of exclusive breastfeeding that was identical to the non-assaulted women: 78% for both groups (Kendall-Tackett, Cong, & Hale, 2013).
Not surprisingly, sexual assault had a pervasive negative effect across all the sleep and depression variables we looked at. But here’s the exciting part; when we added feeding method into the analyses, we found that exclusive breastfeeding actually lessened the effect of previous sexual assault! I almost couldn’t believe it when I first saw the data. Take a look below.
Hours Mothers Sleep: Sexual Assault Status By Feeding Method
The bottom line is the combination of mixed and formula-feeding mothers. We combined these because we found no significant difference in a previous set of analyses.
The top line represents the exclusively breastfeeding mothers. Clearly, the exclusively breastfeeding mothers with a history of sexual assault did sleep somewhat less than the non-assaulted mothers. But see how much less it would be if they weren’t exclusively breastfeeding.
We found a similar pattern with depression: mothers were still at increased risk, but so much less than if they were mixed or formula-feeding.
Depression: Sexual Assault Status By Feeding Method
I also thought the finding on anger and irritability was interesting. The exclusively breastfeeding mothers were pretty much “chill” (i.e., low levels of anger or irritability). This was not true for mixed or formula-feeding mothers. The response we see for the mixed and formula-feeding mothers is very consistent with previous findings on post-traumatic stress disorder. A hyperactive anger response is common.
Anger And Irritability: Sexual Assault Status By Feeding Method
Why would breastfeeding do this? I think the answer can be found in understanding breastfeeding’s role in turning down the stress response. Researcher Maureen Groer is the one who has documented this effect (Groer & Kendall-Tackett, 2011). Trauma survivors often have a stress response that is overly reactive and responsive to stress. The slightest stressor can set it off. Breastfeeding seems to counter that effect.
Why Breastfeeding Is Important For Trauma Survivors
I love the message of these research findings. Our bodies know that we don’t have our babies in a perfect world; that bad things happen to mothers. But breastfeeding allows mothers to essentially have a “do-over,” allowing women to parent differently than maybe they’ve were parented. That’s an incredibly hopeful finding.
Does This Mean That There Is No Benefit For A Mixed-Feeding mother?
No, not at all. Clearly, breastfeeding is good no matter how much she is able to do. She benefits and her baby does too. We just need to recognize that she may not be getting all the stress-reduction benefits she would if she was exclusively breastfeeding. If mothers with a history of sexual assault want to breastfeed, we need to support them and help them overcome any challenges they encounter.
Professionals are often quick to give mothers with a history of abuse or sexual assault “permission” to wean, even when that is not what they want. As providers, it’s always important that we find out what the mother wants to do and work from there.
What can we conclude from all of these recent findings? I think it’s this: breastfeeding makes a difference, and it’s not all about the milk! Even when mothers have experienced serious trauma, breastfeeding can help them overcome it and be the kind of mother they want to be. And that may be the best news of all.
Are You An Assault Survivor?
If you're an assault survivor and are pregnant or have given birth, BellyBelly highly recommends finding support from an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) to help you with your journey and decision making. Getting help at the first sign of trouble is key to getting on top of breastfeeding challenges, both physical and emotional.
If you are pregnant and want to breastfeed, you might like to connect with an IBCLC before your baby is born, so you have a familiar face to turn to and some reassurance before you have your baby.
If you're yet to give birth, BellyBelly also recommends the book When Survivors Give Birth.
Please take a moment to watch two of Dr. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett's videos on the healing impact of breastfeeding after sexual assault, and why breastfeeding is helpful for trauma survivors.
Dr. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett is a health psychologist and board-certified lactation consultant. She is the owner and editor-in-chief of Praeclarus Press, a small press specializing in women’s health, and is the author or editor of 25 books including the Science of Mother-Infant Sleep and A Breastfeeding-Friendly Approach to Postpartum Depression.
- Benedict, M. I., Paine, L., & Paine, L. (1994). Long-term effects of child sexual abuse on functioning in pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes (Final Report)
- Washington, DC: National Center of Child Abuse & Neglect.
- Groer, M. W., & Kendall-Tackett, K. A. (2011). How breastfeeding protects women's health throughout the lifespan: The psychoneuroimmunology of human lactation. Amarillo, TX: Hale Publishing.
- Kendall-Tackett, K. A., Cong, Z., & Hale, T. W. (2011). The effect of feeding method on sleep duration, maternal well-being, and postpartum depression. Clinical Lactation, 2(2), 22-26.
- Kendall-Tackett, K. A., Cong, Z., & Hale, T. W. (2013). Depression, sleep quality, and maternal well-being in postpartum women with a history of sexual assault: A comparison of breastfeeding, mixed-feeding, and formula-feeding mothers Breastfeeding Medicine, 8 (1), 16-22.
- Prentice, J. C., Lu, M. C., Lange, L., & Halfon, N. (2002). The association between reported childhood sexual abuse and breastfeeding initiation. Journal of Human Lactation, 18, 291-226.