by Sheila Kippley
In Scripture breastfeeding is usually associated with a special kind of care, a human example of God's loving care for his people. We read of the nursing mother or of the child who is nursing or is weaned. Mothering is mentioned several times in Scripture and is often associated with breastfeeding.
What follows are biblical references to breastfeeding and/or mothering1 that may be helpful and supportive to parents, especially mothers. The Scripture quotes appear in the order they appear in Catholic bibles.
"And the child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned" (Genesis 21:8).
Here we read for the first time in the Bible of a child being weaned. Prolonged nursing of several years was common during Biblical times, and weaning was a cause for celebration of the child's new stage in development.
Hannah: "As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear to the presence of the Lord, and abide there for ever."
Elkanah, Hannah's husband: "Do what seems best to you, wait until you have weaned him" (1 Samuel 1:22-23)
Breastfeeding keeps Hannah with her baby. Hannah's household planned to travel to Shiloh to offer a yearly sacrifice at the house of the Lord. Hannah excused herself because she was breastfeeding her child. Her husband supported her in that decision. Scripture then said: "So the mother remained and nursed her son, until she weaned him." After the child weaned, she made the trip with her son, Samuel, and gave him to the Lord forever in the care of a priest and prophet.
Many husbands today support the mother-baby oneness of breastfeeding, and for this their wives are most appreciative. Hannah cared for her son during the early years of breastfeeding. When the breastfeeding ended, she then gave her son to the Lord.
When couples anticipate the conception of a new baby, they, like Hannah, can offer this child to the Lord and pray that the child grows up to do the will of the Lord. At the time of weaning, the mother or the parents, like Hannah, can offer the child spiritually to the Lord and pray that the child will grow up in the ways of the Lord.
"Thou didst keep me safe upon my mother's breasts" (Psalms 22:9).
The psalmist describes breastfeeding as safe or protective. A nursing baby or toddler often seeks security at his mother's breasts when hurt or insecure or upset for some reason. While this behavior is common among breastfed babies, it is also described in Scripture.
"...like a child quieted at its mother's breast" (Psalms 131:2).
Here comfort nursing is described perfectly! One of the advantages of breastfeeding is that suckling has a quieting effect upon the child. A nursing mother soon learns that nursing is an easy way to pacify her baby into a deep sleep or to comfort her baby. Comfort nursing also provides extra suckling that satisfies the emotional needs of most babies.
"Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?" (Isaiah 49:15)
The Sacred Author used the bond that develops with breastfeeding to illustrate the enduring bond of God to his people.
"...that you may suck and be satisfied with her consoling breasts"
Comfort nursing is again described in Scripture. "Consoling breasts" is a wonderful definition of the mothering that takes place at the breast. Hunger satisfied, intimate closeness to mother, a wonderful answer to fatigue and the need for sleep, physical reassurance, pacification....many needs are fulfilled at the breast.
"...and you shall suck, you shall be carried upon her hip, and dandled upon her knees" (Isaiah 66:12).
Here a mother has close physical contact with her nursing baby. There is much holding and carrying of the baby by the mother. The baby is described as being on the mother's hip or on her knees. Today this type of Scriptural parenting is often called attachment parenting. And it is described in Scripture!
"When she had weaned Not pitied, she conceived and bore a son" (Hosea 1:8).
Natural child spacing is mentioned in the Bible! The mother weans and then she is able to conceive a child. Weaning means the child has stopped nursing, that breast milk is no longer a part of the child's diet. While fertility usually returns during the time of nursing, this mother apparently was one of those who are able to conceive only after the cessation of nursing.
"I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you" (2 Macabees 7:27).
Here mothering is seen as a continuous process of caring for the child. The mother's care begins in the womb, continues after childbirth with breastfeeding, but it doesn't stop there. The mother continues to provide care after the child weans and continues to grow into adulthood.
This is the only place in the Bible that tells us how long a mother nursed. I cannot prove it, but, judging from contemporary experience in less developed areas as well as experiences with some modern American mothers, I suspect that nursing for three years was a normal practice during biblical times.
"Going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him" (Matthew 2:11)
The three kings arrived to find Mary with Jesus. Remaining with one's child is customary for mothers who follow traditional mothering. We can safely assume that Mary kept the infant Jesus close to her on a continual basis. When Mary and Joseph traveled with the baby to Egypt, one can picture the baby wrapped closely to Mary's body during the journey.
"Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed" (Luke 11:7).
Christ tells a story in which a man speaks the above words. This story hints of the practice of the family bed. In most cultures throughout the world, the family bed is a common practice whereby one or both parents sleep with their baby or young children. It is well known among the promoters of breastfeeding that if you are promoting breastfeeding, you are automatically promoting the family bed. It is for this reason that I included this verse of Scripture.
Did Mary and Joseph do the "family bed"? One mother wrote years ago saying that Mary did not do the family bed because she laid the baby Jesus in a manger. There is much left out of Scripture concerning the birth of Jesus. If you had shepherds and kings coming to adore the infant, then wouldn't it make sense to place the infant, Jesus, in an elevated place where he could be seen? In a stable the only place where the infant might be elevated in order to be seen may have been the manger. The manger might be the only protective place for baby Jesus considering sheep and possibly other animals present in or near the stable.
We weren't there and Scripture does not tell us, but one might speculate that there was some clean soft hay in the stable. Mary and Joseph probably used this or something similar for bedding with Jesus tucked in close to Mary during the night.
"Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!" (Luke 11:27
Here a woman called out to Jesus the above blessing. Catholic mothers often look to the Blessed Mother as their role model and follow her example. There is no doubt that Mary nursed Jesus. This reference in Scripture referred to the fact that Mary carried Jesus in her womb and nursed him as an infant and most likely as a two and three year old.2 Jesus depended upon Mary for nurturing and care during the early years of his life. What a joy for Mary to nurse the Child Jesus!
The Bible gives us several descriptions of breastfeeding and the care we can tenderly give our babies, even if we are unable to breastfeed. All mothers can carry their babies in their arms or hold them on their laps, knees or hip. We see in Scripture that breastfeeding is also associated with a particular kind of care at the breast that offers comfort and safety. Breastfeeding in Scripture is also associated with extended breastfeeding and natural child spacing. Mothers who nurse their babies and little ones can definitely find support for their mothering in Scripture.
- The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Thomas Nelson Publishers for Ignatius Press, 1966.
- Fr. Rob Jack, a professor at Mr. St. Mary's Seminary in Cincinnati, during a day-long series of talks on the Immaculate Conception said that in the non-canonical Proto-Gospel of James, Mary presented Jesus at the temple when he was four years old. Fr. Jack opined that Jesus was probably weaned at that age. The talk was given at Presentation Ministries' Bible Institute at Xavier University, July 28, 2004.
Copyright 2006 by Sheila Kippley
Sheila Kippley has promoted breastfeeding among Catholics since the late Sixties. She and her husband, John, have five children and ten grandchildren-all breastfed. Her latest book is Breastfeeding and Catholic Motherhood. She is co-founder of NFP International and can be reached at www.nfpandmore.org.