At an annual ceremony commemorating the baptism of Jesus, Pope Francis re-iterated his support for breastfeeding women and told them to ‘breastfeed without fear’ in the Sistine Chapel.
The Pontiff told women they should feel free to breastfeed in the church and reportedly said “The ceremony is a little long, someone’s crying because he’s hungry. That’s the way it is.” and “You mothers, go ahead and breastfeed, without fear. Just like the Virgin Mary nursed Jesus.” 1
In January 2014, during the baptism of 32 babies in the Sistine chapel, Pope Francis told mothers that they should not feel uncomfortable feeding their children. The Pope said: “Today the choir will sing but the most beautiful choir of all is the choir of the infants who will make a noise. Some will cry because they are not comfortable or because they are hungry.” and “If they are hungry, mothers, feed them, without thinking twice, because they are the most important people here.” 2
This remark followed another comment from the Pope who approached a mother with a crying child at his weekly Papal General Audience and asked her to “please give it something to eat”. 3
La Leche League Welcomes the Pope’s comments
La Leche League GB welcomes these comments from Pope Francis encouraging mothers to feel relaxed about breastfeeding their babies in the Sistine Chapel. It’s very positive to see the Pope acknowledge the fact that it is normal and natural for a mother to comfort her baby by breastfeeding. Breastmilk is meant to be instantly available when babies are hungry or need comforting.
Breastfeeding in public spaces
We were also pleased that the Pope made it clear he understands that babies may need to breastfeed for food or comfort at any time and it’s important that mothers are able to do so.
In January 2014, the Pope also mentioned the tranquility of breastfeeding and it is known that the hormones in breastmilk calm both mother and baby. However, many women feel anything but tranquil when they try to feed a baby in a public space. Breastfeeding when out with a baby is something that worries a lot of women. Even though most women do so without problems, they may worry about getting a negative reaction.
Some women worry about exposing their breasts when feeding, both in public and sometimes in front of friends and family, because of possible negative reactions and attitudes of others. Mothers may feel anxious about going out again and think that breastfeeding will tie them down. Some women even decide not to breastfeed because of this.
The 2010 Infant Feeding Survey commissioned by the Department of Health showed that only 46-47% of women had breastfed in public spaces, as opposed to 63-71% of bottle feeding women.4 Many women don’t try to breastfeeding in public spaces during the first few weeks and many find it difficult to find somewhere they feel comfortable to feed.
Dealing with criticism
Women can be subject to criticism for breastfeeding when out with their babies. It is sometimes suggested that they should have got the baby into a routine and only go out when they don’t need to feed. However, babies have very small stomachs and as breastmilk is quickly digested, it is meant to be instantly available when babies need feeding or comforting.
Some women feel, or are told, they should express their milk and give it in a bottle when out, even though their own milk would be instantly available if their baby needed it. The words of Pope Francis may help to put some women more at ease and to feel comfortable about meeting the needs of their babies through breastfeeding and perhaps offer those who object another viewpoint.
Why is breastfeeding in public spaces sometimes criticised?
Considering breastfeeding as something which should not be done in public is a fairly recent development in community attitudes. We only have to look at all the wonderful paintings and sculptures of women nursing their babies – including many of the Madonna and Child – to see that in the past it was considered something beautiful and normal. For example, there is a wall painting in the Sistine Chapel showing a woman breastfeeding.
Although we tend to think of Victorian matrons as being somewhat reserved, a series of photos of Victorian mothers breastfeeding which recently came to light clearly shows that they also felt that breastfeeding was something to be celebrated and remembered.
The change in attitude probably started after infant formulas were first developed in the late 1800s. It’s interesting that infant formulas were never intended to be used on such a widespread basis as they are today. They were originally developed to use up surplus cow’s milk to provide necessary nutrition for foundlings and orphans, when no other food was available. 5
However, manufactured breastmilk substitutes began to be sold to the general public who were given the impression they were an improvement on breastmilk. As more and more women decided to bottle feed, many mothers lost confidence in their ability to breastfeed. As nursing was seen less and less, it became something women felt inhibited about doing out of the house.
This was combined with the sexualisation of women’s bodies in advertisements and in the media, so that breastfeeding as a natural and normal way of nurturing a baby became something to be hidden away. The Pope mentioned that babies were the most important people, yet women have been told to go and feed in restaurant toilets because it’s claimed they might upset other people having a meal.
Breastmilk cannot be replicated: unlike formula, it contains living substances which change subtly to suit the needs of every individual baby and are easily digestible. 6 Formula has manufactured ingredients added which cannot adapt in the same way. If a baby is born prematurely, breastmilk will adjust so that it is ideal for the continued growth that baby needs.
Breastfed babies are less likely to suffer from gastroenteritis, chest infections, eczema, ear infections, urinary tract infections, diabetes in childhood, childhood obesity, childhood leukemia and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. 7 Breastmilk lowers stress levels and blood pressure levels, and it increases neurological and cognitive development. It contains lots of omega-3 essential fats, which are known to have an important role in the development and function of the brain. Recent studies have shown it protects against chronic illness, heart attacks and strokes in later life.8
The World Health Organization has said that teaching new mothers how to breastfeed could save 1.3m children’s lives every year worldwide.9 A breastfed baby is five times less likely to be hospitalised with gastroenteritis and on average will visit the doctor 15% less in the first six months.10 Breastmilk continues to complement and boost the immune system for as long as it is offered. There is evidence that the longer a baby is breastfed, the greater the protection from ill health and the more positive impact on their long-term health.11
Breastfeeding also reduces a mother’s risk of developing breast, ovarian, cervical and uterine cancer. It protects a mother against developing osteoporosis, with a reduced risk of postnatal depression,12 helps the woman’s uterus to return to normal size after giving birth and helps to lose weight. There is also a lower risk of diabetes among women who breastfeed.13
Recent research has linked breastfeeding to reducing a woman’s chance of developing high blood pressure, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease,14 breast cancer15 and heart attacks, helping babies’ brain development, lowering anxiety, helping lower the risk of ADHD and even helping prevent stuttering.16
Supporting Breastfeeding Women
According to the 2010 Infant Feeding Survey, in GB an average of around 69% of women start exclusively breastfeeding at birth across the UK. However, exclusive breastfeeding prevalence progressively fell to 46% at one week of age, 26% at six weeks and 1% at six months. Overall, 63% of mothers who stopped breastfeeding during the survey period said they would have liked to continue and this percentage was higher the earlier mothers had stopped nursing (81% of mother who had breastfed for less than a week and 86% of those who had breastfed for less than 2 weeks).17
Even more surprising, in January 2017 the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) said that globally only 38% of women exclusively breastfeed from birth until six months.
In the past, women grew up seeing breastfeeding as a normal and natural part of life. They saw their mothers, sisters, aunts and friends breastfeed and felt confident in their ability to do it. They knew that if problems arose they would be looked after and encouraged and they knew how to overcome difficulties.
Breastfeeding hasn’t got more difficult, but women have lost the knowledge and confidence to do it. They are often no longer surrounded by people who can help them, so when difficulties arise they turn to formula and, unfortunately, this all too often leads to them stopping breastfeeding.
La Leche League is a non-sectarian organisation
LLL welcomes all women to our organisation which has no affiliation with any religious or political party. We try to offer women the support and accurate information they need to establish breastfeeding and enjoy it. All too often we hear women say “I wanted to breastfeed but I had to stop” and we hope that the comments from the Pope about breastfeeding might help to change this in future to “I wanted to breastfeed and I did”.
La Leche League GB offers breastfeeding information and support to all. Established in GB from 1971, as an Affiliate of LLL International in the 1980s, LLLGB has 76 groups and 227 Leaders. LLL Leaders are mothers who have breastfed a child for 12 months or longer and undergone an accreditation process. They know that breastfeeding is not always easy and how much difference having someone to talk to can make. Leaders provide telephone counselling, email support and local group meetings, as well as leaflets on a wide range of breastfeeding questions, information on more unusual situations, access to a panel of professional advisors, and can often lend out books covering various aspects of pregnancy and child care.
Anna Burbidge on behalf of La Leche League GB January 2017
4 Health and Social Care Information Centre: “Infant Feeding Survey 2010” (http://content.digital.nhs.uk/catalogue/PUB08694/Infant-Feeding-Survey-2010-Consolidated-Report.pdf)
6 La Leche League International: “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding”, 8th Edition, 2010, pp. 5-6, 159, 345.
7 UNICEF UK: “Preventing disease and saving resources: the potential contribution of increasing breastfeeding rates in the UK” (http://info.babymilkaction.org/files/UNICEF_BabyFriendly_201210report_policy%20(2).pdf)
8 La Leche League International: “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding”, 8th Edition, 2010, pp. 5-6.
The Lancet: “Breastfeeding: achieving the new normal”, January 2016, Vol. 387, p.404 (http://www.thelancet.com/…/PIIS0140-6736(16)00210-5/fulltext).
10 UNICEF UK: “Preventing disease and saving resources: the potential contribution of increasing breastfeeding rates in the UK” (http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/bitstream/2438/10266/1/Fulltext.pdf)
11 Ajetunmobi et al.: “Breastfeeding is Associated with Reduced Childhood Hospitalization: Evidence from a Scottish Birth Cohort (1997-2009)”, The Journal of Pediatrics, March 2015, Vol. 166, pp. 620-625. (http://www.jpeds.com/article/S0022-3476%2814%2901065-8/abstract)
12 Jones, N.A., McFall, B.A. and Diego, M.A. “Patterns of brain electrical activity in infants of depressed mothers who breastfeed and bottle feed: The mediating role of infant temperament.” Biol Psychol 2004; 67(1-2):103-24.
Mezzacappa, E.S. and Katkin, E.S. “Breastfeeding is associated with reduced perceived stress and negative mood in mothers.” Health Psychol 2002; 21:187-93.
13 La Leche League International: “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding”, 8th Edition, 2010, pp. 4-6. Bartick et al.: “Suboptimal breastfeeding in the United States: Maternal and pediatric health outcomes and costs”, Maternal and Child Nutrition, September 2016 (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mcn.12366/full).
14 Fox et al: “Maternal breastfeeding history and Alzheimer’s disease risk”, J Alzheimers Dis. 2013; 37(4):809-21. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23948914)
16 Jamie Mahurin-Smitha and Nicoline G. Ambroseb: “Breastfeeding may protect against persistent stuttering”, Journal of Communication Disorders, Volume 46, Issue 4, July–August 2013, pp. 351–360 (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0021992413000348).
Horta BL et al: “Long-term consequences of breastfeeding on cholesterol, obesity, systolic blood pressure and type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis”, Acta Paediatr. 2015 Dec; 104(467): 30-7. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26192560)
Aune D et al: “Breastfeeding and the maternal risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of cohort studies.”, Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2014 Feb; 24(2): 107-15. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24439841)
Victora CG et al.: “Breastfeeding in the 21st century: epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect.”, The Lancet. 2016 Jan 30; 387(10017):475-490. (http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)01024-7/abstract)
Gunderson EP et al.: “Lactation and progression to type 2 diabetes mellitus after gestational diabetes mellitus: A Prospective Cohort Study”, Ann Intern Med. 2015 Dec 15; 163(12):889-98. (http://annals.org/aim/article/2471594/lactation-progression-type-2-diabetes-mellitus-after-gestational-diabetes-mellitus)
Schwarz et al.: “Duration of lactation and risk factors for maternal cardiovascular disease”, Obstet Gynecol. 2009 May; 113(5): 974–982. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19384111)
Stuebe et al.: “Duration of lactation and incidence of type 2 diabetes”, JAMA. 2005 Nov 23; 294(20):2601-10. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16304074)
Horta BL and Victora CG: “Long-term effects of breastfeeding: A systematic review.”, World Health Organization, 2013. (http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/79198/1/9789241505307_eng.pdf)
17 Health and Social Care Information Centre: “Infant Feeding Survey 2010” (http://content.digital.nhs.uk/catalogue/PUB08694/Infant-Feeding-Survey-2010-Consolidated-Report.pdf