American Catholics and Breastfeeding

American Catholics and Breastfeeding January 16, 2008

I will never forget the time I was in a small village in Ecuador and I saw a woman, bare breasted, openly and not discreetly (no blankets, no covers), nursing her toddler. The scene shocked me for many reasons. First, women are conservatively dressed in Ecuador and don’t show a lot of skin. Second, her child was not an infant, but a toddler. Third, the other Ecuadorans did not blink at the scene. I had to ask myself, why I was so shocked and I realized the answer was quite simple; I had never been exposed to a bare breasted woman nursing her toddler in the United States. It was outside of my experience.

This scene would repeat itself during my extensive travels throughout Costa Rica working with poor immigrant communities there. Over time, I became accustomed to the notion that a woman nursing her child was not dirty or sexual, even when she was not being discreet.

In America, we still struggle with a woman openly nursing in public.  A few weeks ago, I was in public with my friend–a new mom–and every time she nursed she placed a blanket over her child’s head.  I asked her why she was covering herself and she said “It makes people so uncomfortable to see a baby connected to a female breast.”  She couldn’t have said it better.  In American culture, boobs are purely for sex so we really have a difficult time when we see an innocent child connected to that boob.  Some women I know so hate nursing their hungry baby in public, THEY DON’T DO IT!  They bring formula to Church with them.  How many Catholic women at Mass have I seen pop a bottle in their babies mouth when they are hungry?  Far more than seeing a nursing mom at Mass.

Why should Catholics care about encouraging breastfeeding moms, especially new ones?
Ecological style of breastfeeding, which is breastfeeding on demand according to the baby’s cues (no bottles, no pacifiers, nothing artificial), delays ovulation. It is nature’s method for family planning pure and simple. The average return of fertility for ecological nursing moms is 14-15 months post partum (CCL). The percent of American women who ecologically breastfeed their child through the first 6 months? 11.3%! Here is a break down according to each state from the CDC. If only 11% of women are exclusively breastfeeding by 6 months, then we know fertility returns much faster than nature would have. John and Sheila Kippley recently wrote an essay wondering if the cessation of breastfeeding amongst Catholic Americans led directly to their rejection of the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception. I think the answer has to be “yes!” When nature would naturally space children between 18-30 months apart, all of sudden women were having babies annually. Unfortunately, we do not know the percentage of Catholics who use ecological breastfeeding, but we do know only 3% of American Catholics use NFP or no family planning at all. It is safe to assume that the Catholics no longer use ecological breastfeeding methods because they don’t have to if they A) have the Pill and B) have the bottle.

Ms. Jennifer James of Black Breastfeeding Blog decided to search through the Library of Congress catalog of photos of breastfeeding mothers through the last 100 years. The photos reveal exactly the point in time when unspoken rules began to be applied to nursing mothers. If they nursed, they had to have a blanket. If they nursed, they had to be “discreet.” If they nursed, they had to remove themselves from people,etc. Check out these photos from 1943 in America. Even better, these photos after formula has been introduced. Or these. By 1956, breastfeeding rates had plunged to 20%! In order to combat the influence formula companies had, a group of seven Catholic lay women decided to meet and that first meeting they named their organization after Our Lady of the Milk, or today known as La Leche League.

We should all know the innumerable health benefits to both mother and baby for breastfeeding so I will not go into that. Instead, I will focus on why breastfeeding numbers are not higher. There are many reasons. The first being, ecological breastfeeding is demanding of the mother. In my case, my daughter was connected to me non-stop for the first 4-6 months of her life. This is not an exaggeration. She took comfort in me and I was determined to let her, but it was hard. If it had not been for the support of my spouse and my extended family, I could not have done it. If I had removed myself every time I nursed, I would never go to Mass, never see other people, never socialize. And socialization was crucial because I suffered from post-partum depression. The reality is bottle feeding frees a mother to do what she wants or feels she needs to do. The number one reason for not breastfeeding is because women prefer not to.

The second major reason is work related. 60% of working moms returning to work stop breastfeeding their babies. Compare that to 35% women who are able to stay home with their children. Most work places are not accommodating of breast-feeding mothers. We know that children who are not breastfed are at a higher rate of dying before their first birthday, and we also know that minority communities have high rates of not breastfeeding and of infant mortality. The return to work is related directly to poverty and the need to have the mom’s income in order to keep the family afloat. Even though pumping is preferable, it is not ecological breastfeeding. When women pump they do not receive the same amount of hormones as they do when the baby suckles naturally.

Nursing bonds the family.  It connects moms and babies, it is God’s intended food for new humans, it allows the dads to serve and support his wife and new child by helping around the house, it is God’s family planning, it immunizes little babies by giving them their mom’s immunity, and it is healthy for the new mom by helping her drop the pregnancy weight and protects her from future diseases, like Type 2 Diabetes.

We can see that there are major cultural challenges to coerce moms from their babies.  As American Catholics we can be encouraging to breastfeeding families when we see them.  Make positive comments to parents, help out new parents, and if we are business owners, encourage working moms with flex time, or on site day care so that they can nurse on site, like my ex-employer (a Catholic school) wanted to do for me.

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  • I love this post! Thank you so much…

  • Jonathan

    I think that you are right, generally, about the benefits of breastfeeding.

    I wonder about where you want to go with this posting though (other than the above point), as it has several ideas which show up.

    Paras 1-6 deal more or less with our societal problems with nursing mothers and exposed breasts. Para. 3 specifically notes that mothers you know just don’t nurse their babies in public and instead use formula – is this because of the societal association with sex, or because these woman perceive this is so, or is it because, as you note in…

    Para 6. itself that “The reality is bottle feeding frees a mother to do what she wants or feels she needs to do. The number one reason for not breastfeeding is because women prefer not to.” Is the preference because a woman is freed to do what she wants or needs to do, or because of discomfort with exposed breastfeeding? Or a combination?

  • Anne

    I am a cantor at our parish and I see numerous mothers sitting in the first few rows of church breastfeeding every week. I think this is a positive sign. However, I do understand how some mothers want to be more discreet when they are nursing, especially in church. When sitting in close quarters, I rarely felt totally comfortable nursing my children when strangers were sitting 2 feet away.

    If we want to encourage Catholic women to breastfeed, one of the first places that really needs to embrace this is the church itself. I personally HATE having to leave our actual church to find a comfortable and less revealing place to nurse. Why not encourage your parish instead to put a few rocking chairs in the back of the church, or have a cry room type area within the church so that mothers who are feeding their children can still participate?

  • radicalcatholicmom

    Jonathan, I am trying to argue that women choose not to, but may choose because of all the pressure she receives and the coercive measures society ensures so that she WON’T breastfeed correctly. If we want better breastfeeding to happen, we have to make changes, like Anne speaks of.

    Anne, I also see breastfeeding moms, but I see many more bottle feeding ones.

  • thank you. it is nice to see this topic approached on a catholic site that is not entirely dedicated to “the proper place of women” and nfp. i disagree with the first being motivation to nurse…women should nurse because it is good for themselves and their babies, not because they aren’t being true Godly women if they don’t. nfp/ecological breastfeeding is a great thing, but we need to be looking deeper, at societal issues, as you have. i find myself, as a mom of a nursing two year old, drifting to our very secular la leche league group or mothering magazine. i have not felt any support from the church with regards to the real issues–sexualization of breasts, normality of nursing in public, our two income economy, our society’s emphasis on “independence” of children from a young age, etc. i would really like to see this issue brought to the forefront of catholic thinking…not just as a “moral” way to space babies.

    thank you.

  • radicalcatholicmom

    Kelly: Excellent points!

  • First — I completely agree with Radical Catholic Mom that breastfeeding is the ideal for a multiplicity of reasons: health benefits alone are phenomenal; I’m also all-for parishes providing the means for mothers to do so.

    This may seem strange coming from the man in our family, but curiously enough since becoming a parent I’ve developed an interest in these issues, and to raise a point on behalf of what is admittedly a minority of mothers: some, for biological reasons, are simply not able to breastfeed — and must resort to artificial means (like pumping); and then there are those (our own situation) for whom formula is a necessity.

    In our parenting classes and even at the hospital where we delivered in New York, we encountered a very strong push for breastfeeding (for all the reasons indicated) — to the point where if you didn’t breastfeed, it was difficult not to suffer from feelings of inferiority or guilt (“don’t you want what’s best for your baby?”). Suffice to say we can readily identify with this mother’s experience.

    Some hospitals in their emphasis on the benefits of breastfeeding go too far, IMHO: Free formula samples and formula promotional materials are now banned from gift bags given to new mothers at the 11 hospitals run by the city’s Health and Hospitals Corp (making formula available only by special request).

    So by all means — encourage those mothers who are breastfeeding and able to do so. But keep in mind not to judge those who are going the “formula route.”

  • radicalcatholicmom

    Christopher, as I mentioned, I could not do breastfeeding without my spouse. He was crucial to our success as a breastfeeding family.

    Since hospitals should be about health care, new exhausted mothers should not receive free sample from the whole formula industry. Talk about pressure! New moms nurse non-stop. That is what breastfeeding and babies are all about. That is why support is SO crucial for the mom. The problem is that when we speak about breastfeeding we only talk about the food side of it. But milk doesn’t just have food. It has the whole immune system from the mom. The reality formula is just formula. It will suffice, but only as a last resort measure to ensure the child doesn’t starve to death.

    I don’t think the guilt comes from “Breastfeeding Nazis.” I think the guilt comes from wanting to do one thing and not being able to. In reality that is parenting, if it is not breastfeeding it is something else. You do your best and if some medical issue comes up, then you go to Plan B. The goal is to keep your child alive and as healthy as possible. The best is breast! And if not, then manufactured food will have to do.

  • ben


    I sympathize with your family that your wife was not able to breastfeed for physiological reasons. It must be a real cross to bear for both her and your child/ren. However, this doesn’t not mean that we should “lighten-up” on the pressure to breast feed. Breastfeeding is just the right thing to do–period. For a minimum of 12 months.

    Situations like yours, where there is a physiological impediment, are tragic–like an illness or disability–and should be understood in those terms. Your wife should not be made to feel guilty, But she shuold instead recieve sympathy and support for having to endure a condition of what is essentially poor health.

  • Veronica Mitchell

    There is a basic error in what you have written. Women CAN conceive while breastfeeding, even in the first year. I have done so three times.

  • radicalcatholicmom

    Veronica, there is no error in what I have written. I assume you used ecological breastfeeding. And what I said was “the average return of fertility for ecological nursing moms is 14-15 months.” Average means some women have their fertility return sooner than that, others later. Mine returned 11 months post partum.

    If you nursed, but also used pacifers, pumped, or supplemented, your fertility will return even faster.

    I have two friends who ecologically breastfeed and their fertility returns 2 months post partum! So, I am not denying that it happens, I am saying that for the “average” woman, her fertility will be delayed.

    Also, MOST, not all, ecological breastfeeding moms are also NFP users so I ALWAYS recommend them to chart 6 wks post partum IF you want to delay getting pregnant again.

    Anyway, thanks for bringing up a good point.

    And Ben, you said, it much better than I. Thank you.

  • Since hospitals should be about health care, new exhausted mothers should not receive free sample from the whole formula industry. Talk about pressure! New moms nurse non-stop. That is what breastfeeding and babies are all about. The problem is that when we speak about breastfeeding we only talk about the food side of it.

    Maybe rather than having a single policy of giving or not giving formula samples, moms could be asked their preference and receive it or not. That way, breastfeeding moms wouldn’t have to receive them but those who wanted them could get them. For people who can’t or choose not to breastfeed and who may not be well-off, the free samples can be really helpful. (And of course make sure all mothers are educated on the full scope of benefits).

    I have to say the emphasis from all fronts in our case was to breastfeed, and a few samples of formula wouldn’t have made a difference or even constituted “pressure.” They emphasized ALL aspects, particularly health (not “just the food side of it” — trust me, by the time our baby arrived I could rattle off the myriad benefits of breastfeeding from memory).

    I would also say there was an over-emphasis on breastfeeding to the point where, with some of our nurses, there was a failure to recognize or be fully cognizant of situations where mothers were not able to produce. In our own case, our child was undernourished (through the attempt at breastfeeding) and almost wasn’t released — seeing that the child was underweight, my wife was basically urged to keep on breastfeeding, and it was only with the advice of some understanding nurses and consulting our pediatrician after we left that we were advised to supplement with formula.

    It has the whole immune system from the mom. The reality formula is just formula. It will suffice, but only as a last resort measure to ensure the child doesn’t starve to death.

    While breast-feeding does confer some benefits and is recognizably the ideal, there are lots of formula-fed kids (and adults) out there who are just as healthy as BF kids. Our pediatrician friend has really seen no difference when we expressed our concerns. I think it would be overstating it to suggest that giving formula is necessarily going to short-change your child’s health. So, breastfeeding may be best, but formula is good nutrition and the fact is that most kids aren’t going to fall horribly ill just because they weren’t breastfed.

    I don’t think the guilt comes from “Breastfeeding Nazis.” I think the guilt comes from wanting to do one thing and not being able to.

    Speaking from having witnessed what my wife had to go through, I can say the external message had an impact: that she was a “second-best” mom for giving formula, and for BF advocates (nurses and acquaintances) who basically didn’t take her seriously and simply told her to “try harder.” As a pediatrician friend of ours said: “Everyone is so eager to help women succeed in breastfeeding that they forget the crushing expectations they put on new mothers.”

    Situations like yours, where there is a physiological impediment, are tragic–like an illness or disability

    By the same token, now that we’ve made the switch and she’s worked through her disappointment, we don’t regard our decision to use formula as a tragedy (in fact, I can say it probably saved our baby’s life). Having forgone the heroic (but insufficient) measures to give it the best try she could, she/we now have time and energy to be a better parents and spend time with the baby. I agree that BF is a definite plus (if you can do it, more power to you), but ultimately it’s love and good care that makes a good mother.

    Again, I don’t disagree with the emphasis or the demonstratable benefits placed on breastfeeding — just that one can also “pressure” to the point where it becomes unreasonable, and especially in the context of a hospital BF advocates should recognize that formula may in fact be a necessity for some mothers.

  • 1) Kelly asked for the breastfeeding issue to be brought to the forefront of Catholic thinking. She would probably be interested in my latest book, Breastfeeding and Catholic Motherhood. 2) CCL’s website was referred to for info on ecological breastfeeding. CCL no longer teaches ecological breastfeeding; you will not find that term in their new book or in their magazine any more. Their website has not been updated to reflect the actual changes they have made in policy and publications. You can read our blogs on this at (upper right corner). Also at this site (NFP International) you can download for free a short, easy-to-understand “How-To” NFP manual. Part 3 covers instruction on the Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding. 3), In the new CCL manual (The Art of NFP: Student Guide) their statement about exclusive breastfeeding is inaccurate. Specifically, they failed to note that in order for the infertility associated with exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months to occur, the mother must still be in amenorrhea (have had no periods). CCL so far refuses to insert a correction sheet. The way things are stated, a woman could easily think she was infertile even though she had menstruated, thus experiencing an unintended pregnancy. As an original founder of CCL, such changes in the teaching of breastfeeding infertility, including the new CCL teaching that breastfeeding is not a form of NFP, makes me happy that I am no longer associated with this organization. But I am professionally concerned about the above error which could affect nursing mothers and give a black eye to breastfeeding as a form of natural family planning.

  • Christopher’s Wife

    Situations like yours, where there is a physiological impediment [to breastfeeding], are tragic.

    While I appreciated the support of those who understood my genuine sadness over not being able to breast-feed, let’s not overstate this. As someone who has experienced real tragedy (losing multiple pregnancies), I feel that not being able to breast-feed is a disapointment, not a tragedy. I refuse to characterize having a well-nourished, well-loved, healthy, living baby as tragic.

    I agree that breast-feeding is the ideal. However, even though there are medical reasons why I cannot breast-feed, I don’t care to be spoken of as ill or disabled. I’m over that and feeling fine.

  • radicalcatholicmom

    Thank you, Sheila. I was not aware of CCL’s change. Very interesting.

  • radicalcatholicmom

    I just really think it is SUPER IMPORTANT, Christopher and Christopher’s wife, that while I understand you fought hard to nurse and couldn’t, the reality is in the United States by 6 months of age, 60% of babies are NOT breastfed! by 12 months 80% are not! Our country is NOT making the minimum standards. And while you can say that bottle fed babies are healthy, that is just plain incorrect. They are not when compared to breastfed ones. The stats are out and this is well known. Your pediatrician was trying to make you feel better because your body couldn’t do it. But from a public health perspective, the nursing rates are abysmal and our country’s health reflects it.

  • Rock on! As a proud LLL dad, I am pleased to see this subject discussed here. Far too much ignorance on the subject (as evidenced when I posted about it on the Catholic Dads blog some months ago.) LLL was formed by 5 Catholic women at a Church picnic 50 years ago, for goodness sake…if that doesn’t show what a Catholic activity breastfeeding is, what does? Always good to see Mrs. Kippley posting on the subject. I’ll be blunt…NFP International gets financial support from us nowadays…the organization who taught us NFP does not because of their exclusion of EBF from their teaching materials now.

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  • Erin

    Great article!!!

    My thoughts:
    Moms need support to breastfeed. Our societal views on “how babies should be” just don’t allow for this overall. The norms need to be changed so that it is a common and normal thing to see women breastfeeding in our society. I have decided that with my next baby, I will be nursing in church and not leaving to sit in another room where I cannot hear or participate in the Mass. I should not have to leave just because I don’t use a bottle. I can be discreet, so I am not going to feel self-conscious this time.

    Nobody can make anyone else feel guilty. Guilt comes from within. Example: I cannot afford the top-of-the-line car seat for my child. I know she would be better protected in it, but since it is virtually an impossibility for me, I go with another seat. I choose not to feel guilty when other people talk about the safety of their more expensive seats. I could choose to feel guilty as well, and probably would if my child were injured in a car accident. But I still think that guilt would come from within me.

    The term “breastfeeding nazis” is really too much… Nazis did horrible, terrible things to people. I would love to see this term just go away.

    The hospitals give out formula samples because it profits them. They have sold out to formula companies in order to receive perks. That is not right. Hospitals should push what is proven to be healthiest. There is formula available in the hospital supplies for emergencies – and it was not provided as a sample by the companies. The samples are unethical – anyone who wants a sample can write to the formula company and receive them in the mail. Hospitals, who should market health and health alone, should not be the place where you ask for formula samples. They can give you formula from their own supplies if it is deemed necessary. It is unethical on many levels… one of which being that most mothers will stick with the expensive name brand they receive as a sample in the hospital, believing it is “doctor-endorsed” and that they cannot switch to a more affordable (yet just as good) brand. And I am not even going to go into the unethical practices some of these companies have in taking advantage of babies in third world countries.