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.”