Breastfeeding mothers everywhere have another reason to smile. On two separate occasions, one at the General Audience in December and another during a Baptism last week at the Cistene Chapel, Pope Frances encouraged mothers to go ahead and feed their babies, even though they were out in public — and in the presence of the Pope!
In an interview with La Stampa, an Italian newspaper, the Pope encouraged a mother to feed her crying baby, and then went on to remind us all that we have an obligation to feed not just breastfeeding infants, but everyone who is living without enough to eat:
She was shy and didn’t want to breastfeed in public, while the Pope was passing. I wish to say the same to humanity: give people something to eat! That woman had milk to give to her child; we have enough food in the world to feed everyone. If we work with humanitarian organizations and are able to agree all together not to waste food, sending it instead to those who need it, we could do so much to help solve the problem of hunger in the world. I would like to repeat to humanity what I said to that mother: give food to those who are hungry!
The Pope’s support of breastfeeding in public is a step forward for women and families who have born the brunt of societal shame around breasts and breastfeeding for far too long. “Another day, another breastfeeding scandal,” is a funny lead-in to a not-so-funny story about mothers in San Diego, California, who recently held a nurse-in to support a mother who had been told by her son’s public school teacher that breastfeeding her baby during a private meeting was inappropriate. In another response to public shaming, Simone Dos Santos filed a complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights after being told by a security guard to stop breastfeeding her 4-month-old baby in a D.C. government building. His reasoning? Indecent exposure. There are countless more examples.
What do the “experts” say? The American Academy of Pediatrics defines breastfeeding as a public health issue, not simply a lifestyle choice. The World Health Organization recommends that all infants be exclusively breastfed for up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods for up to 2 years of age or beyond. Unless a woman is housebound, “exclusively breastfed” means breastfeeding in public. North Carolina law states that a woman may breastfeed in any public or private location where she is otherwise authorized to be.
Let’s hope that the Pope’s message will cause some of the critics of public breastfeeding to think twice. Let’s also hope that the Pope’s support of breastfeeding in public will help women and families who are standing up to shame and discrimination to feel less alone.
The PHW Breastfeeding Collaborative is a project of Partners in Health and Wholenesss, an initiative of the North Carolina Council of Churches. The Breastfeeding Collaborative works with low-resource congregations in Wake County to encourage breastfeeding. Please visit our website to learn more.