Study Published in Breastfeeding Medicine Finds That Exclusive Breastfeeding Lessens the Impact of Previous Sexual Assault on New Mothers

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A new study published in Breastfeeding Medicine found that previous sexual assault has a pervasive negative effect on new mothers' sleep, well-being,and risk of depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder, but breastfeeding lessens these effects. The study of 6410 new mothers was authored by Praeclarus Press' Editor-in-Chief, Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, and Zhen Cong and Thomas Hale from Texas Tech University.

Sexual assault has a pervasive negative effect on women's physical and mental health. It increases the risk of depression, anxiety disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Sexual assault also has a negative impact on victims' sleep. Sexual assault survivors take longer to get to sleep and sleep less time overall compared to non-assaulted women. Not surprisingly, sexually assaulted women report more daytime fatigue and are most likely to describe their health as fair or poor.

Little is known, from previous studies, of the effect of sexual assault on the mental and physical health of new mothers. The current study of 6,410 new mothers from 59 countries included a subgroup of 994 women who reported a prior rape or sexual assault. It was possible to examine the effect of prior sexual assault on these new mothers, and whether feeding method had an impact on any of the variables related to sleep, well-being, or emotional state.

As predicted, sexual assault had a negative impact on sleep in a sample of new mothers. These findings were consistent with previous studies on non-postpartum women. Sexual assault survivors took more minutes to get to sleep and reported fewer total hours of sleep, two factors related in increased risk of depression. The sexually assaulted women reported more daytime fatigue, anxiety, and poorer physical health. Again, consistent with previous studies with non-postpartum samples.

The unique aspect of this study was the inclusion of feeding method into the equation. When women reported exclusive breastfeeding, their trauma symptoms were lessened. There was no such protection for women who were either mixed or formula feeding. The results were consistent across all of the variables studied.

The lead author on the study, Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., IBCLC, noted that these effects were fairly easy to explain. "We know from previous studies that breastfeeding downregulates the stress and inflammatory mechanisms in breastfeeding mothers. And that downregulation has immediate effects on mothers' sleep quality, which will also improve other measures of well-being. If a mother is not sleeping well, she is likely to have other physical and mental health symptoms. If something, such as breastfeeding, improves a new mothers' sleep, it stands to reason that the mothers would appear to be better on every measure of well-being." Dr. Kendall-Tackett is a health psychologist and board-certified lactation consultant. She is editor-in-chief at Praeclarus Press, and a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at Texas Tech University School of Medicine.

Dr. Kendall-Tackett noted that, "We feel that these are the most important findings we've ever had. Not only did we find that sexually assaulted and non-assaulted women breastfed at exactly the same rate, but we also found that exclusive breastfeeding appeared to lessen the effect of serious psychological trauma. thereby producing a protective effect. Surprisingly, the same benefits were not found for mothers who both breast and formula fed. Exclusive breastfeeding appears to be a different physiological experience than mixed feeding. Our findings also suggest that mothers with a history of sexual assault should not be discouraged from breastfeeding, but be allowed to make their own decision. Healthcare providers should support them in their efforts."

Dr. Kendall-Tackett's collaborators on this study: Zhen Cong, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Texas Tech University, and Thomas Hale, Department of Pediatrics, TTUHSC.

The full reference for this article is:
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
Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Zhen Cong, Thomas W. Hale
Breastfeeding Medicine. February 2013, 8(1): 16-22.

Praeclarus Press is a new small press dedicated to women's health. We feature a wide range of books in maternal/child heath, lactation, trauma, and women's health.

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