"In reflecting on the experience of my first birth, a son born
in 2000, it never dawned on me that being a survivor of childhood sexual
abuse could have impacted my labor and delivery so dramatically. In fact,
years later (and after therapy) I now realize being a survivor had everything
to do with the birth of my son. After being 17 days overdue (with an accurate
due date), I believe my body and my soul were not going to naturally release
my baby into the world. After much medical intervention, my son was born
30 hours after my labour began.
"Three years later, my own sense of healing had slowly begun and
my second baby was born. My daughter was a beautiful home birth, and without
her knowledge, my baby prompted the healing process of my wounded soul.
I trusted my body this time. I trusted that my body was a beautiful, pure
vessel that would birth my baby unharmed. I actually believed in the miracle
of birth and that this world could be gentle and wonderful even
for a short period of time. My being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse
impacted both the births of my children. One led down the painful path
of self discovery, and the other led me to the path of healing."
past client, A Safe
Becoming aware that abuse you experienced as a child could have an impact
on your labour and birth can bring up a whole range of emotions, such as
sadness, fear, grief, anger and rage. You might feel that the person(s)
who abused you have already taken so much away from you and fear that they
will rob you again of something sacred: your birth experience. However,
if you become aware of this before you go into labour, you are able to make
decisions that can help you minimize the extent to which your past plays
a role in your childbirth. Some women have actually felt that the birth
of their child was the most profound healing experience of their lives.
You can reduce your anxiety and feel more in control if you have the opportunity
to explore the possible ways in which your past abuse may be triggered and
to make plans accordingly.
Survivors have shared some of the following concerns related to labour
- the feeling that they would be "out of control" and would
say and/or do things that would embarrass them
- they were afraid that their bodies were not "healthy" enough
to give birth
- they were unsure how their partners would feel about their behaviour
- they did not trust that the hospital staff would listen to their concerns
or answer their questions honestly
- they were afraid people would see scars from cutting and/or picking
- they were worried that they would be judged, that hospital staff would
feel that they shouldn't be having babies
- they weren't sure if they would dissociate
- they were afraid the pain would remind them of past abuse
- they wanted to avoid an epidural so that they could remain mobile
- they did not want to be touched by multiple caregivers or be "test"
subjects for students
- they were uncertain that they would be able to push when the time came
Having your concerns acknowledged and normalized may be all you need.
For many of our clients it is just enough to know that their thoughts and
fears are quite common, even for women who haven't experienced abuse. Sometimes
survivors start thinking that all of their apprehensions are due to their
abuse history and it can be reassuring to know that many pregnant women
feel just like you do. What might be different for you is knowing that there
is a history of abuse and not knowing how this might "present"
itself in labour.
Many women who have given birth previously without the opportunity to discuss
their concerns beforehand, have felt frustrated, sad and resentful that
they did not know past abuse could specifically impact them in labour and
birth. It is to help you understand that impact and be prepared that we
have provided the information on these pages. Birth
counselling before the birth can support you in more personal ways.
It might be reassuring for you to know that the abuse survivors we have
worked with rarely had any issues or concerns surface for them in labour...
they expressed that, through careful planning and learning tools to work
with their fears, their labour and births were surprisingly positive experiences
in their lives.
Becoming a mother is a process... something that develops over time and
hopefully with the caring and compassionate support of family, friends and
various community service providers. Unfortunately many women do not have
appropriate postpartum care care which offers a balance between empowering
them to follow their own mothering instincts and providing them with non-biased
information about breastfeeding, newborn care and other issues which may
arise in postpartum. It can be difficult for any new mom to find her voice
and sort out her personal preferences against the onslaught of opinions
from those around her and it can be even more challenging for survivors,
who tend to doubt their capacity to "mother-by-instinct" even
more so than women who have not experienced abuse.
On the other hand, many of the women we have worked with had very definite
ideas about how they wanted to mother their children, in response to how
they felt their own mothers either protected or violated them. With this
awareness, some survivors are able to seek out supports that will validate
and encourage their autonomy in making informed decisions.
There are common themes that arise in postpartum for women who have survived
You may be thinking about the likelihood of having postpartum
depression. Unfortunately it is very difficult to identify during the
prenatal period who will experience postpartum depression (PPD) and who
will not, but you may want to consider some of the risk factors:
- a history of depression before or during pregnancy
- a lack of support from family and friends
- a family history of depression
- stressful recent events in your life (death of a loved one, marriage
If you are concerned about the risk of developing PPD please speak with
your care provider. There may be things you could be doing during your pregnancy,
such as educating yourself around warning signs, things to think about for
labour and birth (like hiring a doula), or consider your options for postpartum,
such as in-home care or follow-up home visits with a public health nurse.
Whether or not you want to breastfeed your baby may be directly related
to ideas you have about your breasts stemming from abuse. For some women
the thought that nursing a baby can be a pleasurable experience is revolting
and completely unfathomable. It can be possible for you to breastfeed if
you are supported in learning to put some parameters and boundaries in place.
For instance, if nighttime is a trigger, then perhaps you can find ways
to distract yourself (watch T.V., turn on the lights) or pump and offer
your baby a bottle during the night. There doesn't need to be an all-or-nothing
approach to breastfeeding, and you can feel good about any attempt you make
at offering your baby your breastmilk.
For other women, breastfeeding is a way of reclaiming their breasts for
themselves. As one survivor told us, "when my baby breastfed for the first
time, I realized that they [my breasts] weren't a source of shame for me
any longer." It can take a lot of time, education and patience for you to
learn to nurse your baby, but it is possible. For most new moms it can take
anywhere from days, to weeks and even months to feel fully confident in
their breastfeeding relationship.
You may never learn to "love" breastfeeding and that's okay. Commend yourself
on the courage it takes to initiate breastfeeding and recognize that you
and your baby will benefit enormously from your efforts.
PLEASE NOTE: If breastfeeding makes you feel angry, frustrated
or resentful towards your baby, as is sometimes the case, it is time to
talk to someone about the alternatives. Speak with a lactation
educator or breastfeeding counselor about options available to you.
Bathing or Diaper Changing
Learning how to clean and care for your baby's genitals can be traumatizing
for an abuse survivor. You may be afraid of harming your child or overstepping
their personal boundaries. Ensure that you have a health professional or
trusted friend demonstrate care techniques before you leave the hospital
or within a day or two of discharge. You may want to practice with their
guidance if you need some support for the first few baths or changes. You
also may want to look into hiring a postpartum doula who can assist in role
modeling newborn care and help you develop the confidence to care for your
Bonding and Attachment
Women who have experienced abuse can have a very difficult time forming
healthy attachment with their babies. You may find it difficult to know
what is "appropriate" touch and be worried that you touch your child too
much or not enough. Touching your baby is very important for his/her physical
and emotional health and well-being. By gently holding your baby's hands
or rubbing the top of his/her head you can start to feel comfortable touching
your baby. There are many simple ways in which you can encourage a strong
attachment with your baby:
- Talk to your baby... if you don't know what to say, read them a book
or sing them a song. Just the soothing sound of your voice can bring comfort
to your baby and studies indicate that from a very early age they can
tell your voice from others.
- Make eye contact when you are nursing or feeding your baby.
- Smile at your baby.
- Take an infant massage class where you can learn tips on how to touch
and care for your baby also a great tool for soothing colic.
- Respond to your baby's cries... they are trying to communicate their
needs to you. If your baby does not get a response from their initial
cries, they will often start crying harder and more disturbingly.
For breastfeeding education and peer support in a safe and welcoming environment,
contact your local La Leche League leader.
For more information about attachment parenting, please refer to:
The Attachment Parenting Book: A Commonsense
Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Baby.
Sears, William and Martha Sears. ISBN: 0-316-77809-5
Attachment Parenting International
A non-profit member organization, networking with parents, professionals
and like-minded organizations around the world.
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse: page
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