pilch_pamelaFifty years ago, when the well known mother-to-mother-support organization La Leche League (LLL) was started (by seven Catholic women!), breastfeeding was not only out of fashion – it was nearly extinct! At that time, more than 80% of mothers bottle-fed their newborns using formula (so-called because it had to be mixed from a special recipe, which was considered more scientific than nursing). Those who desired to breastfeed received little encouragement or support from their doctors, families or friends. Hospital practices were so burdensome that even those determined few often found it extremely difficult to nurse past the first few weeks.

Times have certainly changed. A recent study revealed that 72% of mothers in the U.S. breastfeed their babies at least briefly.[1] Birthing practices such as rooming-in with newborns and delayed introduction of bottles and pacifiers have become more common. Mothers have a choice of breastfeeding support services, including professional lactation consultants, LLL groups, hospital-based mothers' meetings and WIC peer counselors. Articles (of varying quality) on breastfeeding periodically turn up in newspapers and parenting magazines. Even the U.S. government has gotten into the act, having produced a controversial but widely-publicized campaign proclaiming that "Babies are born to be breastfed!"[2] A few mothers who are ambivalent about breastfeeding report feeling pressured by the many voices encouraging nursing as the healthiest option for their babies.

And yet...even with all this publicity and support, breastfeeding rates for babies at 6 months of age lag discouragingly behind the U.S. government's public health goals, stalled at only 39%. Even fewer are nursing at the age of one year, the minimum length of time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for optimal infant health. Mothers who nurse their children for two years and beyond, in accordance with World Health Organization guidelines, hardly make it onto the general public's radar, though a determined sub-culture of "extended breastfeeding" mothers exists, if one knows where to look. Most Americans only encounter toddler nursing through sensational, and (usually) inaccurate, portrayals in movies, TV dramas or daytime talk shows.

Why, then, with so much medical, scientific and government support, do not more mothers choose to nurse, or choose to nurse longer?

In their book Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers, Nancy Mohrbacher, IBCLC, and Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., IBCLC,[3] explore modern cultural barriers to breastfeeding. They describe how the rise of bottle-feeding in generations past has led to general ignorance about the way natural breastfeeding actually works. In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, a cultural preference for "scientific" mothering (replacing natural processes with new, "improved" man-made technology) led many to apply inappropriate bottle-feeding management techniques, such as scheduled every-four-hour feedings, to breastfeeding. Continued adherence to these principles contributes to breastfeeding failure for many moms even today. In addition, the authors explore the pervasive commercial pressures that undermine breastfeeding, such as unethical formula marketing, and the continuing lack of education among health care professionals on the needs of breastfeeding couples.

Additionally, they outline a number of beliefs about babies, parenting, and sexuality, common among some Christian parents, including many Catholics, which negatively affect breastfeeding initiation and duration. Examples include the belief that strict feeding schedules help prevent "spoiling", that babies cry in order to manipulate their parents and that proper discipline begins early with "showing the baby who's boss". Some parenting organizations (including some Christian groups) advocate letting the baby "cry it out" between scheduled feedings and before going to sleep, practices which are, in fact, detrimental to the nursing relationship. Certain beliefs about modesty and the proper use of the body, appropriate in many other contexts, may also be a stumbling block for nursing moms, who may feel that breastfeeding is too limiting, requires them to stay at home too much, or prevents them from participating meaningfully in church or social functions. This is especially true if their own priest or fellow parishioners frown on nursing children at Mass or other parish gatherings.

Finally, some Christian childcare experts inadvertently undermine breastfeeding by emphasizing the primacy of the marital relationship to such an extent that the mother's efforts to meet her child’s legitimate needs through breastfeeding on cue (also called "responsive breastfeeding"), or co-sleeping, are seen as damaging to the Christian marriage.

Although Catholic mothers have a great deal of Church support for their role and vocation in general, they are subject to the same cultural pressures experienced by all U.S. mothers in regard to breastfeeding. In addition, they often find themselves directed by friends, family or the media to certain rigid "Christian" parenting resources of the type described above, due to a perceived lack of resources reflecting a distinctly Catholic perspective on breastfeeding and the parenting of young children. [4]

Catholic mothers who faithfully follow Church teaching by avoiding the use of artificial contraception sometimes face even more challenges when their use of natural family planning (NFP) is complicated by postpartum irregularity in their fertility cycles. Breastfeeding mothers who use NFP often report an inclination to wean their babies early just to facilitate a return to more familiar NFP rules after regular cycles return. These mothers need special information, encouragement and support by knowledgeable teachers, as well as from other similarly-situated moms.

Catholic teaching and tradition offer lots of support for mothers who want to breastfeed their babies, and Catholic resources are available. Still, many Catholic moms don’t always know where to turn for faithful and reliable advice. Catholic moms need Catholic support! And Catholic support could be the key to helping more moms and babies enjoy the terrific benefits nursing can bring.

In a recent presentation to health care professionals in Detroit, Michigan (spring 2006), IBCLC Diane Wiessinger[5] encouraged the creation of breastfeeding "mini-cultures" as an effective way to increase breastfeeding rates among various groups of women. A "mini-culture" is a group of mothers who share something important in common. It could be their religion, their neighborhood, their school or professional affiliation – anything that makes the women in the group feel that they share a common bond. When women gather in groups with other like-minded mothers who breastfeed, it increases their confidence in their choice to nurse their own babies. Feeling they are not alone in their decision to breastfeed helps them persevere through challenges and difficulties.

Practically speaking, where can a Catholic mom turn for support? A number of resources are already available, and there is hope of many more to come!

For more than forty years, Catholic author Sheila Kippley has promoted breastfeeding through her writings, talks, and well-known book, Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing: How Ecological Breastfeeding Spaces Babies. In her newest book Breastfeeding And Catholic Motherhood: God's Plan For You And Your Baby, Kippley has gone further to apply Pope John Paul II’s famous Theology of the Body to breastfeeding. Mary Shivanandan, STD, professor of theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Washington, D.C., has recently integrated breastfeeding into her Theology of the Body curriculum. It is hoped that more Catholic scholars will follow suit and address this topic soon!

Some natural family planning organizations promote breastfeeding in their newsletters and classes. As breastfeeding rates increase in Catholic hospitals and among Catholic women, the sight of breastfeeding children at Mass, home schooling support meetings, Catholic school functions, and in playgroups and mothers' groups will become more common as well. Moms can help by encouraging each other, and parishes can work harder to find out how to accommodate nursing mothers at parish functions.

With more education and encouragement, the entire Catholic community can help increase breastfeeding rates among Catholic moms. This will bring real benefits, physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual, to our children, mothers, families, communities and society itself. Breastfeeding really does make a difference, and as Catholics, we have a great tradition of support for the family to guide us in our efforts.

In my inaugural column, I want to thank Lisa and CatholicMom.com for inviting my regular contributions on this topic. In this space I hope to share lots of research and resources, as well as provide motivation and encouragement for moms to embrace their vocation in the early years by mothering through breastfeeding.

[1] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control, 2005 National Immunization Survey: Breastfeeding Practices:

[2] http://www.4woman.gov/breastfeeding/index.cfm?page=Campaign

[3] Available at http://www.breastfeedingmadesimple.com.

[4] Dr. Gregory Popcak, Catholic author and psychotherapist, has written a very informative paper outlining the various trends in Christian parenting advice and has detailed their theological origin. He proposes a distinctly Catholic approach to parenting. A copy of this paper can be obtained by contacting Dr. Popcak at gpopcak@exceptionalmarriages.com. Popcak's general theory about a theologically-consistent "Catholic" approach to childrearing is also found in his book Parenting with Grace: Catholic Parents® Guide to Raising (Almost) Perfect Kids, available at http://www.exceptionalmarriages.com.

[5] http://www.wiessinger.baka.com/bfing/index.html

Copyright 2010 Pamela Pilch