“Breastfeeding Protects Against Disease and Creates
Bond of Love”
Pope John Paul II
Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. As always, it is a great pleasure to meet the distinguished participants
in the study sessions organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences,
and I thank Bishop James McHugh for his kind words of introduction. Today
I am especially happy to extend my appreciation to The Royal Society,
which has co-sponsored this significant meeting.
True to its purpose and statutes, the Pontifical Academy
of Sciences addresses itself to a wide range of scientific, social and ethical
issues which have a bearing on the Church’s service to the human family, a service which springs
from the fundamental Gospel commandment of love. The Academy plays a resourceful
role in helping the Church, in particular the Holy See, to fulfill this task
of service with the benefit of the most expert scientific knowledge and insights.
Your studies and enquiries contribute to the Church’s supreme effort to
journey hand in hand with humanity on its path through temporal realities towards
man’s great and inexorable transcendent destiny.
2. On this occasion you have been invited to share your
expertise on the specific subject of “Breastfeeding: science and society,” as
a part of the overall study which the Academy is pursuing since 1990
on Population and Resources. As scientists you direct your enquiry towards
a better understanding of the advantages of breastfeeding for the infant
and for the mother. As your Working Group can confirm, in normal circumstances
these include two major benefits to the child: protection against disease
and proper nourishment. Moreover, in addition to these immunological
and nutritional effects, this natural way of feeding can create a bond of
love and security between mother and child, and enable the child to assert
its presence as a person through interaction with the mother.
All of this is obviously a matter of immediate concern
to countless women and children, and something which clearly has general importance
for every society, rich or poor. One hopes that your studies will serve to
heighten public awareness of how much this natural activity benefits
the child and helps to create the closeness and maternal bonding so
necessary for healthy child development. So human and natural is this bond
that the Psalms use the image of the infant at its mother’s breast as a picture of God’s
care for man (cf. Ps 22:9). So vital is this interaction between mother
and child that my predecessor Pope Pius XII urged Catholic mothers,
if at all possible, to nourish their children themselves (cf. Allocution
to Mothers, 26 October 1941). From various perspectives therefore the
theme is of interest to the Church, called as she is to concern herself
with the sanctity of life and of the family.
3. Worldwide surveys indicate that two-thirds of mothers still breastfeed,
at least to some extent. But statistics also show that there has been a fall
in the number of women who nourish their infants in this way, not only in
developed countries where the practice almost has to be reinstituted, but
also increasingly in developing countries. This decline is traced to a combination
of social factors such as urbanization and the increasing demands on women,
to health-care policies and practices, and to marketing strategies for alternate
forms of nourishment.
Yet the overwhelming body of research is in favour of natural feeding rather
than its substitutes. Responsible international agencies are calling on governments
to ensure that women are enabled to breastfeed their children for four to
six months from birth and to continue this practice, supplemented by other
appropriate foods, up to the second year of life or beyond (cf. UNICEF, Children
and Development in the 1990s, on the occasion of the World Summit for Children,
New York, 29-30 September 1990). Your meeting therefore intends to illustrate
the scientific bases for encouraging social policies and employment conditions
which allow mothers to do this.
In practical terms, what we are saying is that mothers need time, information
and support. So much is expected of women in many societies that time to
devote to breastfeeding and early care is not always available. Unlike other
modes of feeding, no one can substitute for the mother in this natural activity.
Likewise, women have a right to be informed truthfully about the advantages
of this practice, as also about the difficulties involved in some cases.
Heath-care professionals too should be encouraged and properly trained to
help women in these matters.
4. In the recent Encyclical Evangelium vitae I wrote
that: “A family policy
must be the basis and driving force of all social policies… It is also
necessary to rethink labour, urban, residential and social service policies so
as to harmonize working schedules with time available for the family, so that
it becomes effectively possible to take care of children and the elderly” (n.
Is this a vague utopia, or is it the obligatory path to the genuine well-being
of society? Even this brief reflection on the very individual and private
act of a mother feeding her infant can lead us to a deep and far-ranging
critical rethinking of certain social and economic presuppositions, the negative
human and moral consequences of which are becoming more and more difficult
to ignore. Certainly, a radical re-examination of many aspects of prevailing
socio-economic patterns of work, economic competitiveness and lack of attention
to the needs of the family is urgently necessary.
5. I am therefore very grateful to all of you for offering your
time and co-operation to this meeting co-sponsored by the Pontifical
Academy of Sciences and The Royal Society. I look forward to the
synthesis and report of your findings so that this information
may be widely circulated to our Church agencies and interested
institutions throughout the world. I pray for the success of your
research and for your own personal well-being. May God’s
blessings of strength, joy and peace be with each one of you and
the members of your families.
Published in L’Osservatore Romano, May 24, 1995. Talk given on May