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.
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.