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The Gospel of Life and Breastfeeding
by Sheila Kippley

In his recent encyclical, The Gospel of Life, the Pope stressed seven times that the family should be the “sanctuary of life.” This sanctuary for the newly born begins with breastfeeding. Experts stress the importance that the presence of the mother plays in the optimal development of her child during those early years. God ensures this optimal development by keeping the mother with her child through prolonged lactation. It’s His plan, not ours.
Even in the more recent document, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, the Pontifical Council for the Family stressed the importance of those early years for establishing the child’s emotional patterns. This important and continued loving care is easily provided through breastfeeding.

In The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II also stressed respect for God’s laws. In his own words: “There is a plan of God for life which must be respected.” And again he asks us to “respect the biological laws inscribed in our person.” Breastfeeding is a biological law, a plan of God for life.

The theme of self-giving, especially by serving life at its weakest, permeates this 11th encyclical of the Pope. The weakest is at either end of the scale: new life or old life. Our babies are the weakest in our society and certainly within our own families.

We live in a society where parents are continually placing their babies and children in the care of others or are using gadgets and equipment to do their parenting for them. Parents today too frequently “sacrifice” their children instead of making sacrifices for them.

In The Gospel of Life, we are told that we “see Christ in every human face,” that “every human being is a sign of the living God, and icon of Jesus Christ.” If we see Christ in our babies, how can we delegate this service of love or care for them to others? Why would we want to place them for long periods of time in car seats, playpens, swing seats and so forth when they need to be physically close to mother, on her person or in her arms? Of course, breastfeeding keeps bringing the baby back to the mother’s body. This close physical relationship strengthens the bonding between the two of them. It is not only the best start for the baby, but it is the best start for the mother as well.

With breastfeeding the mother learns in an easy way to give of herself unselfishly to her baby, especially when she becomes involved in a very natural way of mothering. This happens not only emotionally, but also physically as she becomes food and pacifier for her baby. She and her husband become a unit of love as they rely less and less on other persons and gadgets to do the parenting for them. And they learn to do things together as a family unit early in the baby’s life.

In our society we are taught that mother is easily replaceable. Not true if you take nature or God’s plan for your guide. A nursing mother, you might say, is still “pregnant” or one with her baby following childbirth. As one psychologist told a student: “The breastfeeding moments are a continuation of the child-birthing moment.” By her self-giving, by her body providing life and continual sustenance, and by her constant connecting and bonding with the child, the nursing mother feels total fulfillment in a spiritual sense. And the nursing mother who truly follows God’s plan soon learns how irreplaceable she is to her baby.

On May 12, 1995, in a talk to scientists, Pope John Paul II encouraged mothers to nurse at least two years because of all the benefits to baby and mother alike. Then he added, “No one can substitute for the mother in this natural activity.”

To conclude, breastfeeding is an excellent way to provide a start for new life. The little ones will get off to the best physical and emotional start that will influence them for a lifetime, and families will be strengthened. By following God’s plan for baby care, parents perform a very important pro-life activity. Breastfeeding is a very life-giving act on the part of the mother, and it also helps the couple to serve life. Their family starts its mission in becoming the “sanctuary of life” called for in The Gospel of Life.

Published in Denver Catholic Register, May 29, 1996.