Childhood sexual assault (CSA) survivors have a different set of challenges than new moms who aren't survivors. [For perspective, about 1 in 7 girls will be sexually abused before her 18th birthday.] These challenges can manifest themselves in different, often unexpected ways, not just in mom, but also in baby. As the first in a new series here dedicated to raising awareness about the realities that survivors face as pregnant women and new moms, I'm going to highlight three ways that a history of CSA in mom can impact a newborn's health and well being:
- From the strange new feeling of your milk letting down to the realization that your breasts really aren't your own anymore, breastfeeding can be a very triggering act for a survivor. Add in factors like an infant's roving hand, pain of any sort, feedings at all hours and you can start to see why some survivors don't breastfeed. For survivor moms, it's usually less of a "choice" and instead often related to not being able to tolerate breastfeeding or the fact that it just doesn't work for them. And yet, we all know that breastfeeding is ideal for baby. Studies that confirm this are numerous; check out the first paragraph here for details.
- Failure to thrive (FTT) is a state of undernutrition due to inadequate caloric intake, inadequate caloric absorption, or excessive caloric expenditure. There are two types of FTT: non-organic (a non-medical reason the infant isn't thriving) and organic (a medical reason that the baby isn't thriving). With both types, the bottom line is that baby isn't getting fed enough. There are many reasons why FTT can occur: lack of success breastfeeding, emotional overwhelm in mom, misunderstanding or a lack of understanding about basic infant needs in mom/parents, lack of attachment to baby by mom, etc. Each of these above reasons can be by-products of mom's past history of abuse. Dr. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, IBCLC talks a bit about this here.
- Not all women bond immediately with their baby. For survivors, however, that bonding may take even longer, even if the baby is "just" a normal, dependent infant. If the baby is special needs, is "difficult" or has other challenges (colic, etc.) then bonding may be even harder. "Mere" insistent neediness of a baby may stir up past feelings of vulnerability and powerless that mom associates with the perpetrator of her abuse. It's normal: the perpetrator took what he wanted from the survivor and when a new baby enters the survivor's world, dependent and unable to feed or care for herself, the survivor's body is once again at the whim of someone else. This lack of bonding can become problematic though if FTT (see #2) develops and/or if mom begins to have ideas of harming her baby.
What does all of this mean? Well, simply due to their past abuse, survivors carry with them challenges that can complicate their ability to provide the best care for their baby. Add in factors like poverty, a lack of education, an absent or abusive partner, and you have a survivor mom who may barely be hanging on. This is something that should concern all of us. But here's what we can do:
- Keep in mind the challenges of survivors that we discussed above when you hear the ever-present "breast is best" motto. Click here for a bit more on this issue. Not being able to breastfeed a child can be devastating for a new mom's fragile mental health but what is often more detrimental to mom and baby is the societal guilt that moms are made to feel by not doing the "best" they can for their child i.e. breastfeeding.
- Provide support. Support is continually named over and over one of the best resources that you can give a new mom. Good, informed support helps new moms feel less alone, more normal and more accepted. Not to mention provide them with trusted resources that they trust when they need more help or advice. All of this is why I offer free groups. What can you do? Attend a group, help make a group happen for those who need it, or volunteer in a way that feels right to you.
- Rise above the "mommy wars". It can be so hard to sit back and mind your own business. That's true for me too! But we really must. When we accept that we can't ever know someone's whole story and therefore have no place to judge them, then we are removing ourselves from the insidious "us vs. them" battle. It's a battle that neither side will win, even if we "lean in" so let's just opt out of it altogether.
Starting this fall, I'll offer my first virtual program: a childbirth education class specifically for survivors. Open to any survivor, living anywhere, we will meet weekly over a conference call line for seven weeks. First names only. If you'd like more details, head over here to give me a call or message me. Thanks for reading.