Sunday, July 29, 2012

Boundaries for the Attachment Parenting Sexual Abuse Survivor

Welcome to the Fabulous Hybrid Blog Carnival. Our topic this summer is BOUNDARIES! This post was written for inclusion in the quarterly Blog Carnival hosted by The Fabulous Mama Chronicles and Hybrid Rasta Mama. This month our participants reflect on boundaries in all of its many forms. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.
This post is on the topic of dealing with the aftermath of sexual abuse (or related encounters). It might be triggering and too sensitive for some readers. Please continue with caution.

 © Guggie Daly

I inadvertently stumbled over the sexual abuse topic earlier this month when I asked an anonymous question for a reader. I realized that the topic of abuse is not commonly discussed in the natural/crunchy community. But it needs to be talked about because the intense experiences of trying to conceive, pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and beyond provide ample triggers for survivors. The sensations, emotions, loss of control and loss of privacy that come with being a parent can be very difficult for survivors to navigate. As a SAS (Sexual Abuse Survivor) myself, I realized it was time to talk about this topic
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to attachment parenting is the issue of boundaries. For an SAS, boundaries are not just about social grace or respect, but are often necessary for basic mental and emotional functioning. The painful experiences began by having boundaries violated by another person, so a boundary is in a sense the first line of defense. Cross a boundary and the mind and body will set off blaring alarms.

Obviously, this presents a tricky situation in the parenting realm. Seeing as how we start growing our children  inside our bodies we are talking about some big boundary crossing. Suddenly, our bodies begin making huge changes without our permission. 


Some say childbirth is about submission, about letting go and giving in, but within the context of sexual abuse, does that sound like a fun experience? Instead of feeling the power of our bodies and the beauty of childbirthing, it could easily turn into an uncontrollable, overbearing nightmare, triggering memories, smells, sensations and all the negative emotions that come with it. Add in a dose of cold, authoritative medical employees and routine interventions done without care and suddenly you have another traumatic experience on your hands.

How can you begin setting boundaries during your pregnancy and during labor/birth?
  • Research the birth field to decide what makes you feel comfortable, and what might be a trigger. For some women, they feel comfortable in the hospital. For other women, they feel caged and vulnerable. Learn about common birth practices and think about how they might fit into the context of your previous experiences. How do you feel about being told to strip down for a stranger? Is it okay for a doctor to do a cervical exam? Do you want your legs held down or touched while pushing? Remember: you absolutely DO have a choice in ALL of these things short of a catastrophic emergency. So do not leave a stone unturned, thinking you have to accept anything that triggers you. You deserve a safe, comfortable, positive birthing experience. Write it down and carry this statement with you if you need to.

  • Consider being upfront with anyone you want present during your birth. Tell your midwife, doctor, doula, photographer and especially your partner. Make sure they understand what sexual trauma is and how it relates to childbirth. If your provider is unaware, consider a new one. If you love your provider, make sure he or she gets informed ASAP. If anyone is unreasonable or dismissive, get away from them quickly. Someone who is not supportive now will be downright dangerous during your birthing experience.

  • Develop safe words or gestures to make sure you receive the support (or space) you need during labor. If a touch is triggering, for example, your support team needs to know that shaking your head means to move away from you and stop touching immediately. Other gestures I've heard of women using include waving the hands, turning away from the other person and ducking the head. Think of something simple and clear as it can be hard to communicate during labor. 

  • If you know a particular topic is very sensitive for you, discuss this ahead of time and prepare for it with your birth team. For example, if freedom is important, make sure no one inadvertently tries to hold your hand too tightly, hold your body down, push your legs, lock the door, block your way while you are pacing, etc. If modesty is important, make sure everyone knows not to use certain words to ask you to undress, consider purchasing a laboring outfit, have a designated room or even a partition to go behind if you feel too exposed, etc. Don't feel shy or demanding. Make your preferences clear now so things are not rushed or misunderstood while in labor. 

  • Feeling a loss of control can be terrifying. Losing control over the way your body reacts and the sensations you feel can bring you right back to your previous trauma. Spend time learning about the stages of labor and the reported sensations. Draw these feelings towards you and own them. Remind yourself that you are in charge of your body and that you give your body permission to move forward in this process as it sees fit. If letting go is framed as a conscious decision, it can feel empowering. I know it can, b/c I walked that journey in my births. You can find that peace, too.
Read more about sexual abuse and childbirth herehere, and here.


The act of breastfeeding might or might not cause memories and emotions to resurface. For some women, breastfeeding has no connection to their previous experiences or does not trigger them. For others, it can be a harrowing trigger.
  • If you already want to avoid breastfeeding completely, please reconsider. If you haven't experienced it, try to give it one chance. Breastfeeding can be a challenge, but it can also bring feelings of empowerment, confidence and healing. It's about reclaiming your body and then choosing to give yourself to your children. This is a powerful message.

  • Make your nursing sessions comfortable every time. Do not treat this as trivial. Feeling trapped can be a big trigger. If you know it's a trigger for you, then prepare ahead of time. Make a "nest" in your home. Choose your favorite room. Pick out a comfortable rocking chair or a pile of pillows. Make sure you have your favorite beverage and a tasty snack available. Bodily sensations connected to letdown might be triggering. Give yourself various forms of entertainment such as books, magazines, chatting on the phone with a friend or surfing on the internet. Don't let yourself fall into the mindset of feeling trapped and caged. 

  • You might have set an expectation that the beginning will come with some pain and discomfort, but be vigilant. Too much pain or continued discomfort might indicate other issues such as a disorganized latch, a baby with a sore neck from birth, thrush or a tongue tie. Seek guidance immediately. These issues could unnecessarily jeopardize what might be an otherwise positive experience. Don't write them off as normal; follow your gut. Nursing should not be unpleasant!

  • As your child grows, set clear and consistent boundaries. Nursing children sometimes like to poke, pick, pinch, prod, squeeze or otherwise twiddle with various body parts. Some researchers theorize that twiddling the other nipple or patting the breast while nursing stimulates a let down. If you suspect your child is trying to get a faster dinner, you can help by pumping first or doing breast compressions. You can also wear a colorful, fun nursing necklace so your child can hold onto it instead of you. Consider investing in some cute tops to layer so if your child wants to pull up a shirt, this doesn't bare your midriff. 

  • Most importantly while breastfeeding: don't grimace and keep going. If something feels wrong, don't bury it. Address it promptly. Breastfeeding under stress can quickly turn into a long term situation of resentment and anxiety. If you begin to feel triggered or trapped, sing a cheerful countdown, such as the ABCs or a nursery rhyme. Let your child know that at the end of the song, he gets to play with his favorite toy or eat a yummy snack b/c you are taking a mommy break. Unlatch, take deep breaths. Acknowledge your needs. Try some yoga or pilates to recenter. Ignoring these feelings while breastfeeding will not make them go away; in fact, they will amplify and can become a constant thorn due to the hormonal connection. So take care of yourself; you deserve it and your baby deserves it!

Learn more about breastfeeeding and sexual abuse here, here, and here.


Again, like breastfeeding, the act of bedsharing might or might not cause memories and emotions to resurface. Bedsharing represents having a person next to us during a vulnerable, intimate time. It also means being disrupted at night, usually by physical touch first. Some survivors find bedsharing to be very comforting, while others find it very triggering.
  • If you already want to avoid bedsharing completely, you still have other options available that promote the breastfeeding relationship and healthy infant sleep. You can try connecting the crib to the side of the bed (or purchasing a product built to do this). This is helpful if your concerns are about physical touch, b/c this creates a boundary. If it's still too close, you can keep the crib in the room, receiving the benefits of easily responding to the baby and keeping baby safe during the night while maintaining a boundary for your needs. 

  • Make use of a nightlight, unless this is triggering, too. Being roughly awakened in the dark by a thrashing baby who begins to scream can cause a lot of fear and adrenaline, making it harder to go back to sleep, let alone tend to the baby. 

  • If you have a partner, agree ahead of time on who will do what. Something as trivial as feeling trapped by being the sole care provider at night can trigger feelings of abandonment and resentment. Address these issues honestly and consider writing down an agreement so everyone feels acknowledged. Additionally, remember that some things might increase the potential triggering such as night time nursing or night time diaper changing. Make a gameplan that will address your individual needs so that nothing happens as a shock. 

  • Get enough sleep. No, really. Don't accept the excuse that parents are destined to be sleep deprived. If sleep deprivation amplifies your negative emotions or leads to increased episodes of feeling triggered, then make sleep your top priority. Sleep in every day. Go to bed early while your partner does the bedtime routine. Sleep during the baby naps. Hire a babysitter to sleep. For some survivors, sleep deprivation alone is a terrifying trigger. If you agree, then you know how important it is to get enough sleep. This alone can make bedtime parenting painless.
Learn more about co-sleeping (not much within the context of sexual abuse) here, here, and here.

Due to length, unfortunately, I didn't address other situations, such as feeling overwhelmed as the primary caregiver, public play dates, the restricting trigger of babywearing, etc. But the general ideas provided above can help in those topics, too. The main thing is to remember to immediately acknowledge your feelings and then work to resolve the situation. It's easy to try to stuff the feelings down and just keep going, but this will not work when it comes to the 24/7 needs of children.

As a survivor, nothing is taken for granted, and nothing is as simple as it looks. Even the most trivial thing can become unbearable, bringing back unwanted memories, emotions and sensations. Survivor Parents might find more triggers when responsively parenting, but with clear communication and careful preparation, attachment parenting can also be an extremely rewarding, peaceful and healing experience. Reclaiming your body gives confidence. Experiencing things such as childbirth and breastfeeding are very empowering, showing you that your body is beautiful, good and certainly not broken. For survivors, responsive parenting can bring peace to everyone in the family.

Reclaiming and giving

If you liked this...

Protecting Children From Abuse

Survivor Confessions
Visit Hybrid Rasta Mama and the Fabulous Mama Chronicles to find out how you can participate in the next Fabulous Hybrid Carnival! Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants.


  1. Thank you so much for writing about such a sensitive and closeted topic. I am quite sure that the average mama does not consider how her life as a mother would have been so different and challenging if she were a victim of sexual abuse before becoming a mother. We take the ability to bring life into this world and nourish that life for granted. While it may be a little uncomfortable, it certainly is a walk in the park compared to those who are having to simultaneously process their past while embracing their role as a mother. I cannot begin to imagine the strength that it would take to practice attachment parenting while working through such difficult physical feelings and emotional challenges. I really appreciate you continuing to bring awareness to this issue. I hope that through this post, more mamas can connect…mamas or mamas to be who may be struggling through pregnancy or new parenthood as a SAS.

  2. This is such an important discussion, thank you for taking the time to help and provide resources and solutions to other parents. I have this bookmarked so I have it handy for any clients who may benefit from it. TY!

  3. I know very little about sexual abuse and trying to parent, but I have friends who have struggled with this. Hopefully I can share this with them and help them realize they aren't alone and they do have some options for dealing with these issues!!

  4. Thank you for posting! As a SAS myself and parent, I realize that even if it was years ago, it still affects things even today. I tried nursing for over two months and I just never got to where I could do it, seemed like I had problem after problem, latch issues, supply issues, no let down, almost like my milk never came in. I was so anxious during feedings nothing relaxed me. While I don't know if it was from the SAS, I know it never seemed the "natural" wonderful feeling I craved from it. I was miserable, uncomfortable and she would just cry the whole time b/c nothing came out. Eventually after major weight loss (on her part def not mine), we had to start giving formula, while I still tried to pump and nurse. Sadly, I dried up completely even after several days of solely nursing to try to build supply. I blamed myself for her weightloss and felt like a failure. I know that every body is different and it seemed mine just didn't want to do that job. I do wonder though if things will be different the next baby, I hope desperately that they are! Thanks again for another awesome post!:)