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Breastfeeding Articles

Breastfeeding: New Catholic Interest
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 mother.”


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 or beyond.”
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 school.


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 increased child
spacing.

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 fertility.


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).