Toward a Theology of Breastfeeding

By Topinambour via Flickr Creative Commons

World Breastfeeding Week is being observed Aug. 1-7 in 170 countries for the 19th year.  The theme “Talk to me!  Breastfeeding – a 3-D experience” encourages advocates to discuss breastfeeding in places beyond health care settings, and I think a religious-oriented blog fits the bill quite well.  Like so many aspects of female experience, the spiritual dimensions of breastfeeding are not articulated in the Catholic tradition.  What might we say?  My inspiration comes from Protestant theologian James Nelson, who observes that religious teachings about the body frequently are imposed from the outside.  Rather, he suggests, we should look to the body itself as a source of meaning.

Reflecting only briefly on my knowledge and experience of breastfeeding, I see yet again the expansive love of a caring God. Breastfeeding points to an intimate connection between feeding and nurturing that is profoundly Eucharistic.  The 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich speaks of how Jesus feeds us from his body like a mother in her Showings.  A breastfeeding mother sustains her baby physically, but the complex hormonal process also encourages a close bond between them and calms them both.  Abundance is inherent to breastfeeding.  The more the baby sucks, the more milk the mother produces.  Breast milk contains antibodies that are protective for the baby.  It contains nutrients that are well suited to the baby, therefore most easily digested, and promote brain and nervous system development.  When birth occurs prematurely, mothers’ milk contains more fat and protein and other nutrients the baby needs to grow tissue, as well as higher levels of antibodies to help them fight infections.

Breastfeeding also is compatible with the Church’s social justice concerns.  Compared to the production of formula, which uses fossil fuels and other resources, it is safe and sustainable for the environment.  Breastfeeding is readily available to people in varied economic situations (assuming the mother herself is adequately nourished to produce milk), though the marketing of infant formula, especially to impoverished people, presents a challenge to breastfeeding.  This controversial issue surfaced in the 1970s and led to the creation of a voluntary international code; a boycott of Nestle products still exists due to concerns about their marketing in third world countries.

The decision to breastfeed or bottle-feed is a highly personal one that generates tension among people of differing philosophies.  No one wants to be made to feel guilty about their parenting choices.  In conjunction with World Breastfeeding Week, the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) has called for renewed commitment from all sectors of society to create supportive environments for breastfeeding, including in worksites, parks, public transportation, health services and other places outside the home where mothers of young children carry out their daily lives.  I would add churches to that list.  Faith communities have a positive role to play in nurturing mothers as they nurture their babies the best way they know how.

Additional Resource:  World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) organizers have actively engaged youth in breastfeeding advocacy, and they created a flash mob called “Feed the Future” to disseminate their message in a new way.  (I had to look up the meaning of “flash mob.”  It’s a group of people who assemble in a public place and perform briefly and then disperse.)  Check out the video of the WBW flash mob.  Here are the lyrics:

listen up
imma rap about breasts

cuz ev’ry other song
has a line about her chest
and the world’s OK with
the sex context
but feed the future and
the world’s like
what the heck?
they call it a rack
turn a gift of god
into a sales contest
and treat ev’ry woman
like an item on the shelf
major corporations and
snakeoil quacks
claim to replace
what’s nature’s best
with powdered potions,
subliminal ads
enough of that
it’s time to act
k and waba say
time to take your breast back

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2 Responses to Toward a Theology of Breastfeeding

  1. Ah, breastfeeding! Four long long runs with four children. No one less than a year… some still having the occasional nip (skinned knee, ear ache) when they were over four. I spent years as a LaLeche leader, including a very sad and instructive time as counsellor to young women/families who had lost a child at delivery or shortly after. Can you imagine a better God-gift than young women who, under such sorrow, pump and donate to babies still here who need such treasure?
    Gift of God, gift to us all.

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