Editor’s note: Some details have been changed to protect the identity of the mother in this piece.
I am writing this in the hope that it might help anyone who is going through or has been through abuse. I want them to know that they are not on their own and they can still have a lovely, close, beautiful breastfeeding journey. I found ways to cope with the feelings and memories that breastfeeding sometimes triggered and to continue breastfeeding during and after abuse. And I want to share what helped me in case other mothers might find it useful.
When I had my little bundle of joy (who is now far from little), I desperately wanted to breastfeed, but I also worried whether I could. He was not my first child and I had not got the support the first time round, and I had introduced formula and stopped breastfeeding much earlier than I wanted to.
It was tricky at the start, but I pushed myself out of my comfort zone to ask health professionals for the help I needed to breastfeed my baby. I got the support I needed, and by around two months we had cracked comfortable breastfeeding.
I naively thought that it would be easy from that point onwards, but suddenly out of nowhere breastfeeding started to trigger responses from abuse. This hit me like thunder, and I was scared that I would not be able to cope and would have to give up feeding, something which I was now enjoying and was proud of.
Although my baby latching and having skin-to-skin with him was usually okay when he was tiny, on a bad day it did sometimes trigger sensation memories and make me feel uneasy. At these times, using a muslin square between us would keep this at bay, still letting us feel that closeness as it was so thin. The first real trigger came when my baby’s hands started to wander. It wasn’t too bad over my clothes but feeling my baby roaming hands against my skin sometimes brought up issues for me. It wasn’t always bad, but there were things that made it more likely to trigger a negative reaction – it could depend on the time of day or how tired I was, whether it was dark or if there was a certain smell around.
When it did happen, it would send me into a panic, and I would feel such “mum guilt”. Inside, all I would want is to get the baby off me, for the touch to stop, but I would also be feeling guilty about having those feelings, because I know that my baby needed to feed. Sometimes I cried myself to sleep after my baby had finished feeding, as I had wanted him to unlatch so much. I felt I was letting my baby down.
The mixed-up feelings and guilt were really hard to deal with. I wanted to breastfeed my baby, but I also wanted to be left alone and have no one touch me. As my baby learnt to reach out and grab, the touching got more difficult for me. Sometimes I dreaded the next feed, even though I also wanted to feed so much.
Tiredness was a major factor in how likely I was to be triggered when breastfeeding, and my baby was not just a night feeder, he was a night cluster feeder. So, I was exhausted, and it was dark for many of his feeds, which made all the memories worse as I as getting so little sleep. He liked to stroke my breasts while he was feeding and that used to trigger flashbacks and panics at the slightest touch when I was tired. To try and stop his wandering hands, I would try and hold my baby’s hand or let him grab my fingers but he wasn’t always happy doing this. I tried little toys, but he didn’t like that either. Nursing necklaces didn’t work for me because having things around my neck would set off flashbacks. I started to doubt whether I could continue feeding, as I was scared that my little one would notice that I would look away or on occasions pull away and I began to feel really sad.
I was still determined to breastfeed though, and so I would focus on my baby, talking to him about what was around me. I used the grounding techniques that were helpful at other times, but spoke aloud about what I could see, hear and smell. Sometimes this would lead into making a little story for him about anything… a bee going shopping… anything just to try and focus on anything but the vivid memories of the bodily reactions I was experiencing.
When the touch was too much I would hold and stroke my little one’s hand, which would distract me and allow me to focus all my attention on my son and how beautiful he was and take the bad memories away. The breastfeeding journey was up and down; as soon as I found a technique that seemed to work something else would crop up. Teething was a particularly difficult time for me in terms of feeds triggering memories of abuse.
It was so hard, as it’s not a subject you feel you can ask someone about. As my baby got older, things didn’t always work and even into toddlerhood, he was not a good sleeper. At around 18 months, I found my local LLL Facebook group at a time when I was struggling hugely, and I wish I had found it earlier!
Initially I only asked about nighttime feeding, as my baby was waking hourly at that point, and biting, as that was also an issue at that time. Over time I felt comfortable sharing more with my local Leader and talked about how breastfeeding sometimes triggered memories and feelings of abuse. With her support I explored other options and found alternative techniques that helped. On particularly bad days I used earphones to listen to music to distract myself from horrible memories, but I felt so guilty, that I should be enjoying my time with my baby and not ignoring him. The suggestion that I could adapt this and just have one earphone in and continue to talk to and interact with my son was one that worked well for me.
The sense of smell is one that can be really important, either helping us to feel safe or triggering difficult memories or feelings. Smelling something of my baby’s or a particular perfume that made me feel safe was really useful. I had a little teddy bear, that was easy to hold and had textures that were helpful with grounding me using touch and I also put some of the perfume on it. My usual position to breastfeed my toddler was curled up on the sofa with my feet up, but I found that on bad days putting my feet down and feeling the floor beneath them also helped.
We talked about alternative positions that would reduce touch and take pressure off my breasts and nipples. I had tried feeding lying down previously but not got on with it. With support, I tried this again and with some tweaks to adapt the position found a way to do it that worked for me and my son.
As well as the practical suggestions that I could try, which helped reduce the flashbacks that I was experiencing, talking to my local Leader also helped with the guilt I was feeling about not being able to cope with doing things the way I felt I should be able to. She helped me see that what I was doing was the best I possibly could for my baby, which was all I ever wanted to do. Being able to talk about my fear about breastfeeding in a safe way meant that I was able to feel more positive and I regained the love for breastfeeding.
One thing that I want to mention that I had not imagined that I would be able to do, because I was put down and shamed so often, was breastfeed in public. But by starting when my son was still very young in places that I knew were baby-friendly, such as a department store with a breastfeeding room, I managed to overcome my fears. I’m proud of myself that it soon became normal for me, and I was able to breastfeed out and about wherever I could find somewhere to sit or stand.
After having found such good support, I had a lovely breastfeeding journey that went beyond toddlerhood and it is something now we both still have fond memories of. If you are struggling with abuse, whether current or past, please know that there is support available and that you can reach out for help. You are an amazing mother.
While LLL can offer support with breastfeeding while coping with the effects of abuse, you can find more general support through the following organisations:
Rape Crisis: https://rapecrisis.org.uk/ 0808 500 2222 in England & Wales;
www.rapecrisisscotland.org.uk/ 08088 010302 in Scotland
Women’s Aid: www.womensaid.org.uk in England & Wales;
https://womensaid.scot/ 0800 027 1234 in Scotland
Refuge National Domestic Abuse Helpline: www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk 0808 2000 247