Monday, April 5, 2010

Breast is still best

Thirty plus years ago, in a previous life as a public health student, I spent a lot of time on the campaign to stop infant formula manufacturers from marketing their products in places where their use could only lead to infant deaths. The combination of maternal poverty (not enough money so cans of formula are "stretched" beyond their nutritional value), contaminated water (mixed with the formula), and deprivation of the protective antibodies in mother's milk was frequently lethal.

At the time I was also impressed by how many painters had depicted Our Mother unselfconsciously breastfeeding the infant Jesus -- a practice that had come to be viewed in the West as unsophisticated and certainly not fit to be performed, even modestly, in public places. While women in developing countries know that the best way to keep a squalling infant quiet in church is to offer the breast, this is frowned upon by many parishioners in our country where a bare breast is seen as a sex symbol rather than a source of food and comfort. I always fantasized about turning some of the more famous "Maria Lactans" paintings into promotional posters for breastfeeding.

A new study published today in Pediatrics brought this to mind. The World Health Organization and many other groups including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention argue that infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life "to achieve optimal growth, development and health." However, a 2009 breastfeeding report card from the CDC found that only 74 percent of women start breastfeeding, only 33 percent were still exclusively breastfeeding at three months and only 14 percent were still exclusively breastfeeding at six months. According to the report in Pediatrics: "The United States incurs $13 billion in excess costs annually and suffers 911 preventable deaths per year because our breastfeeding rates fall far below medical recommendations." Let alone the worldwide costs of failure to breastfeed.

Part of the reason that women stop breastfeeding early in the United States has been the lack of legal support in the workplace -- adequate breaks, a place to pump breast milk, etc... One of the many "pro-life" provisions in the health care reform bill that the USCCB opposed but Congress passed and President Obama signed "amends the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (29 U.S.Code 207) to require an employer to provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child's birth each time such employee has need to express milk...The employer must also provide a place, other than a bathroom, for the employee to express breast milk. If these requirements impose undue hardship, an employer that employs less than 50 employees is not subject to these requirements." This provision and a summary of state laws on breastfeeding can be found on the National Conference of State Legislatures Web site.

We Catholics need to take the medical studies on the benefits of breastfeeding seriously as part of our pro-life agenda:

  • Catholic employers should comply with these workplace provisions voluntarily, whether or not they have 50 or more employees and therefore are forced to comply.

  • Catholic doctors and hospitals should be doing everything in their power to promote and support extended breastfeeding by their maternity patients, and, if necessary, minimize their promotional relationships with infant formula manufacturers.

  • Catholic churches should adopt policies that welcome nursing mothers rather than making them feel like they are a disturbance.

Finally, we can all pray to Our Lady of La Leche -- for whom the La Leche League was actually named! -- to protect all nursing mothers and help us become a community that supports rather than shuns them.

Photos (top to bottom):

1. Altar in the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem where tradition has it that a drop of Mary's milk fell while she was breastfeeding her Child and turned the grotto white.
2. El Greco
3. Leonardo da Vinci
4. An image of Nuestra SeƱora de la Leche in Chile
5 and 6. Image and shrine of Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine, Florida

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