Because Breast is Best (in honor of International Women’s Day)

Guest post by Allison
Quick: Who said this about breastfeeding? “Mothers need time, information and support. So much is expected of women in many societies that time to devote to breast-feeding and early care is not always available.” The answer: Pope John Paul II.

Most of us don’t expect a priest, much less a pope, to be weighing in on breastfeeding. But the late Pontiff made a compelling case in a 1995 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of Britain:

In normal circumstances these (advantages of breastfeeding for mother and child) 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.

After I married, I decided to breastfeed any children I would bear. My mom, born in the 1930s, was part of a generation of American women discouraged by physicians from breastfeeding. To give a sense of the prevailing attitude of those times, one friend’s mom asked her obstetrician about breastfeeding. He told her, “Breastfeeding is for peasants.”

My mom became pregnant six times in seven years, and told me she loved breastfeeding her oldest child for a couple of months and regretted she had not had support to continue with my oldest brother and her subsequent babies.

Pope John Paul II rightly traced the decline of breastfeeding to “a combination of social factors, such as urbanization and the increasing demands placed on women, to healthcare policies and practices, and to marketing strategies for alternate forms of nourishment.”

Before I had babies, I read up on breastfeeding in The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. One of its authors is Edwina Froehlich, co-founder of La Leche League International, the breastfeeding advocacy group that provides education and support to mothers. It didn’t surprise me to learn Froehlich was a devout Catholic, as were all the women in that first La Leche Group. Even the organization’s name has Catholic roots. The group had been intrigued by the first Marian shrine in North America, dedicated in 1598 by Spanish settlers in St. Augustine, Florida. It is called Nuestra Senora de la Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of Happy Delivery and Plentiful Milk) (left).

Breastfeeding did not come easily to me. In September 1996, during the early hours of our first son’s life, I eagerly awaited for him to “latch on” and begin nursing. After a few false starts, I thought we both had figured it out. Imagine my terror as I held Gabriel in my arms to feed him and he turned purple and stiff and stopped breathing. I called for the nurse, assuming our baby had just died.

As it turned out, Gabriel was having a seizure, the first of several in his early months. The purple color was vasoconstriction, not a sign of death. (Of course, the breastfeeding had nothing to do with the seizures.) Gabriel spent his first eight days in the neonatal intensive care unit of Saint Peter’s Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey, while neonatologists tried to sort out what was wrong with him. Did he have a cerebellum? Did he have anatomical brain damage? Brain bruising? Mental retardation?

With our son attached to feeding tubes and breathing monitors, I could not breastfeed; I could not hold him; I could not take him home. In fact, neither we nor the physicians knew if he would come home at all.

Thank God the nurses at this Catholic hospital immediately encouraged me to pump my own breast milk. They sent my tiny bags of expressed milk via a pneumatic tube from my hospital room to the neonatal unit, where they were put into his feeding tubes, along with infant formula.

When I returned home from maternity ward, I pumped breast milk every four hours, including through the night, so that I would be ready to nurse our baby when he was ready. This enabled me to nurture Gabriel even while he was in neonatal intensive care.

Throughout this ordeal, it was reassuring to know that my Church “got it”—understood my efforts meant I could nurture our infant. I was able to nurse Gabriel when he did come home—medicated and with a diagnosis of Benign Transient Neonatal Seizure Disorder. (In other words, these benign seizures had no known cause.)

This experience made it clear to me that God designed women’s bodies so we could bear children. What a blessing my body fed my unborn child and through breastfeeding, the son I had just delivered into the world.

As Pope John Paul II put it in his Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women: “Motherhood implies from the beginning [from creation] a special openness to the new person. . . . In this openness . . . the woman discovers herself through a sincere gift of self.”

  • pennyyak

    What a beautiful story, Allison. Thank you for writing and posting it. Our good Papa John Paul II – surprising fellow, wasn't he?

  • Michelle

    And I have this to look forward to. :) Due April 20th with my first.

  • Ruth Ann

    Thanks for this post, Allison. Thirty years ago I ran into a similar problem when our daughter was born. I intended to breastfeed as that option was coming back into vogue. But Catherine was born with cyanotic congenital heart disease and had to be transported to a medical center while I continued to convalesce where she was born. So, I, too was encouraged to express my milk via a pump. It wasn't the most dignified experience I could imagine, but I was willing to overlook that for the sake of Catherine.Catherine has made it through 5 major surgeries and lots of other more minor procedures. She will be married in May. God is good!

  • Athos

    My wife, Lady Athos, was blessed to be able to breastfeed our younger son (#1 son was adopted; she tried a contraption with him, but it was formula just the same), breast-pump, etc. I, too, came from the unfashionable era for breastfeeding for mothers. I wonder if there is a connection between the rise of PLAYBOY and the dearth of breastfeeding in the 50's-60's. Hmmmm

  • Anne

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! As a Certified Breastfeeding Educator I applaud this lovely post! I also pray for your son (how is he now-you don't mention?)You might enjoy a post I wrote a while back about breastfeeding when I was beginning a course to become a certified lactation counselor. Thanks for breastfeeding your babies and for supporting this natural way of caring for babies, and I agree, what a wonderful church we have!

  • Allison Salerno

    @Ruth Ann: So nice to hear from another mom who has traveled this road. I am so happy for your daughter.@Anne: Gabriel is wonderful. He was given a clean bill of health at 18 months and yes, the seizures were benign. They don't call it "epilepsy" at that age, but essentially that is what it was and he outgrew it. It is an inherited condition; I had it too but it was misdiagnosed as a vitamin deficiency at that time. (So they didn't realize my children might inherit this condition)I breastfed Gabriel for a year, and our second son for two plus years. It is such a pleasurable experience.

  • Laurie

    :D Thank you, Allison. I nursed my two children (born ten years apart) for a total of seven years. The "nourishment" provided by breastfeeding is much more than what our children require physically, for mother *and* child. What a beautiful and perfect gift He provides through our bodies, created so wonderfully.(I was also a member of La Leche League)

  • Anne

    So glad that Gabriel is well! I love his name! It's so nice to hear that you found the experience pleasurable, at work I spend a lot of time trying to convince nervous first time moms that lots of women love to breastfeed! Once those hormones start flowing and that bonding between mom and baby takes place, there is nothing better! It is a blessing from God!

  • Sarah Harkins

    Allison, thank you for posting about this (sometimes bold) topic of breastfeeding. I love, love LOVE that quote from JPII at the end. Makes me heart twitter :-) @Athos- I can def see how the rise immorality in the sixties and seventies and especially of reducing women to mere objects of pleasure gave women and men a sense of shame when it came time to expose the breasts for the purpose God gave them. I started breastfeeding my first full of pride and not at all ashamed– then came the uncomfortable relatives and an occasion of lewd behavior from one of them (I was ALWAYS totally covered). Unfortunately, now I am much more self conscience when I breastfeed. Sad how other people's sins and shortfalls effect even the pure of heart. "To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled.(Titus 1:15)

  • Elaine

    Third time trying to post a comment –my feeling is that if you don't like public breastfeeding, don't watch. :)It's best for the baby; it's best for the mother (reduced risk of breast cancer).Human milk for human babies.

  • Peasant

    I spent 9.5 years breastfeeding – although I didn't set out with a preference, ultimately, we couldn't really afford formula. These were the best 9 years of my life. Thank God for poverty!

  • Dee

    Happy International Women's Day. The writings and speeches of Pope John Paul II continue to amaze me. Motherhood as a gift of self. Indeed.

  • Allison Salerno

    @peasant:JP2 actually brings up the issue of poverty in his address on breastfeeding."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. "

  • Beth

    Thanks Allison, for your thoughtful reminder of the physical and spiritual benefits of nursing to both mother and baby, especially for those of us whose breastfeeding days are becoming somewhat of a distant memory. (My own favorite image comes from a New Yorker cover in the late 90's showing a female construction worker nursing her baby up on a high beam!) In that vein I would add to your post a reminder of how important flexible, accommodating work environments (not to mention generous family leave policies) are to promoting breastfeeding.

  • Liliana Sanchez

    Thanks for this post. I worked as a volunteer in Peru providing health information in urban areas where women didn't have access to health care but were influenced by advertisement to buy baby milk. It was coordinated by doctors from different non-profit organizations and a state university. We explained how breastfeeding was important and how it protects the child. I feel very proud of the work we did. As a mother I also did it because I knew all the benefits. I hope more people would understand the importance of breastfeeding for the child and the mother.


    Wonderful post Allison! My staff and I wear a colorful button on our lab coats that syas "Breast is Best", in both English and Spanish. With about 90% of my practice from Latin America, our waiting room resembles a series of ladies who look like "Nuestra Señora de La Leche y Buen Parto!" What I find ironic is that it is usually my most 'well educated' and politically liber American patients that say they feel 'uncomfortable' sitting next to a breast feeding mother while waiting to see me. This really is ironic. Our culture so libertine, yet so uncomfortable with the natural gift of breastfeeding… It does point to how we have continued to objectify women in our supposedly 'progressive' culture. I am delighted to see that the writings of JPII continue to be read, discussed and celebrated. Thank you for this post.@ Webster: Thank you for having the guts to allow this post. I think it inculcates further the cross section of readers from many generations and walks of life.

  • Anonymous

    Love what you Allison. What a wonderful artical. Breast feeding is the best and one of the best things a mother can give to her gife from GOD to her child. Mother Mary breast feed our lord. Think about it. Mary had no money and had to stay in a barn to get through the whole birth. She breast feed our Lord and with love and to keep him alive. Many women today need to-be comfortable whith there bodys today and breast feed for all the wonderful reasons N benifits for the childs important health needs. ESP in 3rd world countries today that is all they have to do to feed. It is apart of life and what God gave to Eve in order to produce and be close to her child. Push comes to shove. If we have no formula's, no water, nor cow milk. She would have her gift from God… Her Breast milk to give.. Enough said..

  • Allison Salerno

    @Anne and everyone else: In one my previous responses, I neglected that I had checked out Anne's marvelous blog, including her piece on the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem, where the Holy family took shelter during Herod's reign. says a drop of Our Lady's milk fell to the ground and pilgrims pray there for fertility and healthy pregnancies.Everything in the Universe is of God, down to a drop of a mother's milk. I was reminded of this poem of William Blake's. God is awesome, yes!"To see a World in a Grain of SandAnd a Heaven in a Wild Flower,Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.– William Blake, from "Auguries of Innocence"

  • cathyf

    In America, at least, the Church has been better at words than actions. The Church is a very large employer of women in their childbearing years, mostly in Catholic schools and hospitals.As for providing space and scheduling flexibility to pump, the Church isn't any better than the average employer, and certainly worse than the best.And we won't even get into the Catholic hospitals participating in the formula-pushing biz just like all of the other hospitals. And the curricula in Catholic schools has nothing to say about breastfeeding, either. A formula-fed infant is twice as likely to die in the first year of life than a breastfed one, and 9 times more likely to be hospitalized. Breastfeeding should be a pro-life issue.

  • Allison Salerno

    @cathyf: Thank you so much for your insights. I was blessed with a (secular) employer who allowed me to return home at lunch to breast feed and gave me a lockable office to pump. But you are right; my boys have never learned a thing about breastfeeding and its connection to Catholic theology at CCD. And they won't. What is the solution? So many. Perhaps if Catholic Churches were willing to host support groups for young moms, either LLL or a church-sponsored group. I only went to two or three LLL meetings; they were helpful in teaching me some basics. They were held in a conservative Jewish synagogue and open to all women. I am unaware of a single church in my diocese that hosts these groups. I could not find a group for new moms, either.That says, my experience giving birth at a Catholic hospital was outstanding in terms of breastfeeding support. Would be interested to hear from other women about their experiences.

  • Jan

    Would be interested to hear from other women about their experiences.I'm a pretty vocal advocate for breastfeeding, especially because of what happened after my first child was born. As I was being discharged from the hospital, a woman whom I'd mistakenly thought was a nurse (turns out she was an aide) was giving me instructions. One of the things she said was, "You feed that baby every three hours." I was young and didn't know any better, so, I tried – in vain – our first night home to wake my baby girl up at the 'first' three hour mark. She was out like a light! I said to myself, "the heck with that." She slept all night and never did change her ways!

  • Anonymous

    This seems more like a social issue than a religious one.

  • Allison Salerno

    @Anonymous: I am not sure what "this" refers to. Breastfeeding in general? Or a discussion of how Catholic employers encourage or not breastfeeding? I am wondering what the concern behind your comment is. From my point of view, our religious lives are not cut off from our lives as social beings. We exist both in mind AND body. Breastfeeding is part and parcel of the Theology of the Body, a central teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. "The structure of a woman's body is made for union, for connection. The act of intercourse happens within a woman's body as does the union of egg and sperm. The rapidly forming embryo unites itself to the lining of the womb and remains connected through the umbilical cord. In breastfeeding, the woman and her child are connected heart to heart and flesh to flesh for love and nourishment.";=view&id;=76&Itemid;=48

  • Anonymous

    I have no disagreement with any of your points concerning the benefits of breastfeeding.I am not too sure it is necessarily a matter of faith. It seems to me as more of a preference which many woman both religious or not prefer to do for very sound medical and emotional reasons. I also believe and agree that there is a spiritual part to it as well.It is nice to read how John Paul has written about it. But the pope's writing is not necessary in order for any Catholic woman to understand how or why breastfeeding has great benefits.It is also in my opinion not a matter of faith per se.My other concern is that there is and there has been such a push for breastfeeding and the benefits of it that in the wake of that some women have felt pressured to breast feed. There is at times a moralizing that can be a part of those who promote breast feeding. I am not suggesting you are moralizing, but I am sensitive to that since I have experienced it myself. I was not able to breastfeed due to medical reasons, and I was made to feel guilty about my condition by those who were zealously promoting it. I felt horrible and inadequate.Several of my girl friends have had similar experiences. It is an odd experience to be made to feel guilty for choosing not to breastfeed. My feelings of guilt was very great. And it was only until my good doctor used old fashion common sense to help me not to feel badly. She told me " Stop it, millions of babies develop perfectly on formula".Thank God for common sense!

  • Allison Salerno

    @Anonymous: I am so glad you wrote back and explained your concerns. I absolutely share them. Nothing requires Catholic women to breastfeed. Speaking for myself, I do not like and have never subscribed to the notion that there is, for example, a "right" way to give birth. Mothering is not a competitive sport.I am so terribly sorry people were pressuring you to breastfeed and made you feel bad about your condition and what you needed to do to take care of yourself and nurture your children.God bless you!

  • Jason

    Sadly, breastfeeding has often (wrongly) become a moral issue. Breastfeeding zealots view it as the ONLY moral choice, and that those who don't do it are condemning a child to a life of mental retardation and/or poor health and disease. Truth is, breastfeeding may be the preferable choice in most cases, but it is not the best choice in all cases. And children who are not breastfed are just as likely to be healthy as those who are.

  • Allison Salerno

    @Jason: I don't believe anyone who has posted here is a zealot in anyway. Nor am I, who wrote the original post.A few people have been asking about the "moral" dimensions of breastfeeding. I do not consider it a moral issue in that I do not consider folks who breastfeed better people than folks who are not.But I have been mulling this: why would the Catholic Church – the Pope! – weigh in on breastfeeding?The Catholic Church instructs us there is a right and wrong way for human beings to be intimate. Specifically, sexual intimacy is to happen within the context of marriage, and married couples must not separate the sexual act from the procreative act. We are not to use artificial means to prevent conception.These are moral issues because the behavior can be sinful and can affect people well beyond the two. Likewise, abortion affects not only the soul of the mother and child but has far reaching effects on society too. In constrast,that the Catholic Church does not require women breastfeed.That said, it wants to usher in a world where women can use their bodies as God designed them – to nurture a new life. Please read what JP2 said about breastfeeding He was not a zealot. And he wasn't "moralizing". I think the folks Jason and the anonymous poster referenced are people with a purely secular approach to this issue. And that is a whole other can of enchiladas.

  • Webster Bull

    Well said, Allison! I knew nothing about JPII's comment before you told us about it. And I have no moral prejudices for or against breastfeeding (nor do I think you do). All I can say, with a big smile, is that I remember so dearly watching my wife breastfeed our children — and then having the privilege of burping them myself!! I am not being ironic. I am being an old, sentimental father of grown children recalling some of the purest, happiest moments of my life. Which is to say that, just as a husband is totally involved and implicated in abortion or contraception, he is involved and influenced when his wife breastfeeds. Very happily influenced, in my case.Thanks again for a great post.

  • Lucy

    This is an important topic to discuss. I think breastfeeding is certainly best. It is the best nutrition for the baby and fosters a respect for women's bodies as God created them. Although I was able to make it through 6 months of nursing my first, my stints became shorter with each baby due to health issues. I have scoliosis in my back, and the postioning of breastfeeding, combined with the extra weight on my own body caused tremendous pain. I also had migrain headaches until I stopped breastfeeding. My fith child I nursed for 5 weeks in agony, but I was determined to at least get that base of immunities in him. Then came the self-consciousness whenever I'd pull out a bottle at a homeschool meeting. I felt as if I needed to explain to everyone why I had to do it! I wanted to print out brochures to hand out to everyone with the long story in detail. I have friends who were unable to have large families who experience the same feelings. So, we have to always assume the best of people.:)I struggled with guilt feelings as well, and wondered if my child would really be able to bond with me (or anyone!) I came to appreciate certain things about bottlefeeding if it becomes necessary. It allowed my husband to feed and bond with our baby as well as my other children. I have beautiful memories of our youngest in the arms of his 9 year old brother as he fed him, with his eyes gazing up in awe of his big bro. They have a beautiful relationship to this day. We are also blessed to be able to use formula in our day (when it is necessary) because St. Therese and her siblings had to live with another woman when their mother was unable to nurse them.So yes, breast is definately best, but we have to be charitable in our thoughts towards those who don't because we may not know the whole story. :)In Christ,

  • Allison

    @Lucy: Welcome to YIM Catholic and thank you so much for offering your perspective and experience on breastfeeding and spiritual matters. I loved your last paragraph: "So yes, breast is definately best, but we have to be charitable in our thoughts towards those who don't because we may not know the whole story." :)

  • Michelle

    I think another important aspect of breastfeeding – and really childbirth in general – is that in a way, it desexualizes women. There seems to be a huge separation between women and motherhood (which includes the menstrual cycle, child birth, and breast feeding). For the most part, exposure to these things is mostly unacceptable in our society (though I think it's definitely getting better as more women are aware of it). And by "unacceptable" I mean we don't talk about it. Families don't talk about these things OR experience them together – instead children take sex ed in school, but they never see the consequences (how many teenagers have seen a birth before getting pregnant themselves?). And I'm not saying that all women should be mothers – because certainly all women shouldn't. But she shouldn't be this sexual icon either, with her breasts separated from her body. And that seems to dominate mainstream culture. It also makes Christians far more conservative and paranoid even. I was a paranoid conservative. I still am sometimes, but I'm learning that's not a healthy view of the body. I'm also not saying let it all hang out, by any means. But I sometimes wonder if the Christian response to the world's sexualization of women has made it harder on individuals to be pure in mind (and body). If that makes any sense.This probably just sounds like a bunch of ramblings…and…well…they are new thoughts for me as I am about to be a first-time mother.

  • Allison

    @Michelle: It makes a tremendous amount of sense and I am glad you posted. Catholics have a different understanding of sin from Protestants.see:"Protestant Errors: Luther and Calvin taught as their fundamental error that no free will properly so called remained in man after the fall of our first parents; that the fulfillment of God's precepts is impossible even with the assistance of grace, and that man in all his actions sins. Grace is not an interior gift, but something external. "

  • Allison

    @Michelle: Prayers for a safe delivery.