by Sheila K. Kippley
Thirty years ago my hometown Catholic newspaper, The Tidings, refused to
accept a paid ad for my book, Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing.
Too suggestive a title, thought an editor. Today, fortunately, “breastfeeding” is
no longer taboo. While some Catholics remain in the lead in discussing
and promoting this subject, others may have some important questions of
a religious and moral nature. Let’s examine some of these questions.
Does the Church offer any guidance about breastfeeding?
On October 26, 1941 Pope Pius XII took time out from his busy wartime duties
to meet with Women of Italian Catholic Action. His primary concern in
this talk was character development, and he thought it began at the mother’s
breast. “This is the reason why,” he explained, “except
where it is quite impossible, it is more desirable that the mother should
feed her child at her own breast. Who shall say what mysterious influences
are exerted upon the growth of that little creature by the mother upon who
it depends entirely for its development?” These insights have only
recently been corroborated by scientific findings.
In 1995 Father William Virtue published Mother and Infant, in which he
set forth the Church’s rich moral tradition concerning breastfeeding.
Fr. Virtue concludes: “The testimony of the Magisterium and moral experts
confirms that it has been the constant teaching of the Church that there is
a serious obligation of maternal nursing.” (More later about the “obligation” terminology.)
On May 12, 1995 Pope John Paul II addressed a Vatican conference on breastfeeding.
He noted “two major benefits to the child: protection against disease
and proper nourishment,” and added: “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
The Pope continued: “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. From various perspectives,
therefore, the theme is of interest to the Church, called as she is to concern
herself with sanctity of life and of the family” (original emphasis).
The Holy Father also commented favorably upon efforts to encourage
extended breastfeeding: “The overwhelming body of research is in favor of natural
feeding rather than its substitutes. Responsible international agencies
are calling on governments to ensure that women are enabled to [exclusively]
breastfeed their children for four to six months from birth and to continue
this practice, supplemented by other foods, up to the second year of life
The Pope was referring here to a 1990 UNICEF document. That organization
and the World Health Organization now recommend six months of exclusive
breastfeeding (nothing but mother’s milk) and then supplemented breastfeeding
up to 24 months or beyond.
In his address to women published in the January 1955 issue of
Family and Life, Pope John Paul II taught that a mother’s role in the raising of
her child is irreplaceable and that a child has a right to his mother’s
care: “Children have a right to the care and concern of those who have
begotten them, their mothers in particular.” Obviously, in God’s
plan for mother and child, breastfeeding ensures that the mother is the
primary caregiver during the important early years.
Does the Church offer any guidance about breastfeeding? The answer
is obvious. Two of the most brilliant and well informed Popes
ever to lead the Church have urged every Catholic mother to breastfeed
her children if it is at all possible. The few mothers who find
themselves truly unable to nurse are not the subject of the papal
exhortations. Catholic mothers who want to do what’s
best for their babies have the guidance they need.
Does a mother have an obligation to breastfeed her baby?
When my husband and I read Fr. Virtue’s chapter on breastfeeding, we
were concerned about the “serious obligation” terminology. This
was new to us. We contacted Fr. Virtue and he clarified this terminology.
By “serious obligation” he does not mean the matter of serious
or mortal sin. However, breastfeeding is the norm in God’s plan, and
the question of some sort of obligation stemming from that plan still remains
to be clarified.
Starting in April of 1997, there was an unprecedented burst
of research published about the benefits of breast milk and
the need for the baby to have one consistent caregiver during
the first three years of life. God in His Wisdom provides both—the breast milk and the consistent nurturing—through
prolonged lactation. (This research is available at this website under “The
Importance of the First Three Years” section and is titled, “The
Crucial First Three Years.”)
In our high-tech society, many
women believe that formula is just as good. Not so. The American
Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued an official Policy Statement
on Breastfeeding in December of 1997 only because the research
was showing that breast milk and breastfeeding is overwhelmingly superior
to formula and bottlefeeding—even in a developed nation such as ours.
I encourage every parent to get a copy of this Statement from the Internet
(aap.org) A new Policy Statement on Breastfeeding was released February
2005 and replaces the 1997 Statement.]
The AAP concludes that breastfeeding has certain proven benefits
to the baby. “Human milk feeding decreases the incidence and/or severity of
diarrhea, lower respiratory infection, otitis media, bacteremia, bacterial
meningitis, botulism, urinary tract infection, and necrotizing enterocolitis.” According
to the AAP, breastfeeding also provides “a possible protective effect
against sudden infant death syndrome, insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus,
Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, lymphoma, allergic diseases, and
other chronic digestive diseases.” Other studies show that breastfeeding
boosts the academic performance of a child both in grade school and high
There are short and long-term benefits for mom as well. The
AAP states that breastfeeding will help mothers return to pre-pregnancy
weight faster, provide less postpartum bleedings and more rapid
uterine involution, reduce their risk of ovarian cancer and
premenopausal breast cancer, and also reduce their risk of hip
fractures during the menopausal years.
In brief, papal teaching and scientific studies tell us that
breastfeeding is in the best interest—health and otherwise—of mothers and babies
alike. Knowing this, isn’t there an obligation on the part of Catholic
parents to seriously consider breastfeeding? Don’t our children have
a basic right to the best care we can provide? Don’t we have a corresponding
duty to provide it?
Does breastfeeding significantly postpone the return of fertility?
Yes, with ecological breastfeeding. No, with cultural breastfeeding. Two
other proven benefits listed by the APP for the breastfeeding mother deal
with breastfeeding infertility:
1. “Lactational amenorrhea causes
less menstrual blood loss over the months after
delivery.” Amenorrhea simply means the absence of menstruation.
2. Lactating women have a “delayed resumption of ovulation with
My experience suggests that many Catholic
women and couples are interested in a natural spacing of births with breastfeeding,
but most mothers do not do “ecological” nursing, and their fertility often returns immediately
after childbirth. My experience with our first child is typical. I was nursing,
but my fertility returned very soon after childbirth. However, with our second
child, I changed my mothering and breastfeeding practices, and menstruation
did not return until our baby was a year old. Those two difference experiences
led me in the 60s to research and write a book on breastfeeding and natural
child spacing. To distinguish the kind of breastfeeding that does space babies
from the kind that doesn’t. I needed a new term. Since the late 60s,
I have used “ecological breastfeeding” to describe the only form
of baby care that has a built-in side effect of natural infertility.
Ecological breastfeeding can be described negatively and positively.
Negatively, the mother does not use bottles, pacifiers, schedules,
and babysitters. Positively, the mother cares for her baby with the
equipment God gives her—her breasts,
arms, lap, and back. Where mother is, there her baby is. The key to breastfeeding’s
natural infertility is frequent and unrestricted suckling. In the ecological
relationship, the mother’s full-time presence allows her baby to nurse
frequently, and the baby’s frequent suckling postpones the return of
We now emphasize that ecological breastfeeding has seven standards.
These standards are not at all difficult to follow. They require only
the willingness to be one with your baby. When mothers do ecological
breastfeeding, the first menstruation returns on the average at 14.5
months postpartum. Those mothers who do ecological breastfeeding and
remain in amenorrhea during the first six months postpartum will have
a 99 % infertility rate. The first eight weeks postpartum are so infertile
if a mother is exclusively breastfeeding (nothing but mother’s milk) that international experts have said that
any vaginal bleeding during these 56 days postpartum can be ignored with regard
to determining fertility or amenorrhea for the exclusively breastfeeding mother.
Worldwide, proper breastfeeding spaces the births of babies about every two
to three years.
An article is inadequate for fully explaining how to do ecological
breastfeeding in contemporary Western culture. I know it has to sound
self-serving, but my experience suggests that mothers who want to
do ecological breastfeeding and enjoy its normal side effect of extended
amenorrhea do well to read and reread my book Breastfeeding and Natural
Child Spacing. I am not aware of any other book on the subject.
Breastfeeding is one area where faith and reason meet. We have the
scientific information to support and encourage mothers to breastfeed
and we also have the Church, which offers additional encouragement
to mothers who choose to breastfeed. The most common form of family
planning worldwide was and is still breastfeeding. It really is
God’s own built-in plan for spacing babies.
Let’s hope that many more Catholic parents seriously look at the benefits
of breastfeeding as their children arrive. In our detached society, we
need to have more attached relationships early in life. Breastfeeding is needed
now more than ever.
Previously published in Lay
Witness (June 1999). Reprinted with permission
by Catholics United for the Faith (www.cuf.org).