Bernardino Luini painting of Jesus being breastfed by the Virgin Mary. Photo courtesy of public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Breast-feeding is on the rise, but in church it's still an issue

Bernardino Luini painting of Jesus being breastfed by the Virgin Mary. Photo courtesy of public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Bernardino Luini painting of Jesus being breast-fed by the Virgin Mary. Photo courtesy of public domain via Wikimedia Commons

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) Jesus was breast-fed.

It’s a point often made by mothers who want to breast-feed in church, but know others would prefer that they retreat to the nursery, or find an out-of-the-way bench. Another point they make: Breast-feeding is part of God’s plan -- so of all places, why not in church?

“Breasts were made to feed a baby,” said Misti Ryan, a devout Christian lactation consultant in Texas whose business has a cross in its logo.

A mother can breast-feed modestly and should be allowed to nurse in church if she wants to, said Ryan, who has nursed five children in her Baptist congregation. “The church needs to go there.”

Pope Francis did go there last month, in his much-noted comment to a journalist about a young mother and infant who had come to a recent general audience:

"She was shy and didn’t want to breast-feed in public, while the pope was passing," Francis recalled. "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."

Breast-feeding advocates delighted in the pope's acceptance of breast-feeding as a natural act appropriate in a sacred place. If it's fine during a papal audience, then why not at the mall, the supermarket -- or even in church? 

Still, many Americans -- at least according to a series of informal conversations and online forums -- feel queasy about breast-feeding in the pews.

 Misti Ryan, a devout Christian lactation consultant in Texas whose business has a cross in its logo. Photo by Kelly Roth Photography, courtesy of Misti Ryan

Misti Ryan, a devout Christian lactation consultant in Texas whose business has a cross in its logo. Photo by Kelly Roth Photography, courtesy of Misti Ryan

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

And though American mothers are increasingly choosing to breast-feed and 77 percent of babies are nursed for at least some part of their infancy -- the site of a woman breast-feeding in church can still raise eyebrows and draw disapproval.

But it’s generally a quiet disapproval: No one wants to be seen as the one who denied food to a baby, or denied its mother the opportunity to hear the Word of God.

Take for example, Mary Fischer, a popular online blogger on parenting issues known as "The Mommyologist." Fischer blogged in September about the “5 Places Moms Need to Breastfeed Discreetly,” with “church” as No. 5.

“It's wonderful when moms want to bring the kids to church and nurture their faith early on," she wrote. "But a cover-up is a necessity with a baby in tow. Do I really have to elaborate here?"

The post inspired hundreds of comments, many of them taking Fischer to task, and a mocking parody on a feminist parenting website. As one commenter replied to Fischer: “You must have some psychological damage to be so freaked out about other women feeding their babies the way nature/God intended.”

Fischer, the commenter concluded, “pretty obviously did not breastfeed or she wouldn't have drawn such ridiculous conclusions.” Actually, Fischer did breast-feed her son, who is now 7. But not in church.

“There are certain places where it really does make people uncomfortable,” she said. “The last thing I want to do is be listening to a sermon and look over and see boobs. If you need to do it, fine. Just make sure you have a cover-up.”

At the Catholic church she attends in Connecticut, Fischer said she has never seen another mother breast-feeding, but if she did, she wouldn’t say anything to the mother. “I would never ask anybody to cover up,” she said, adding that she might go home and grouse a bit to a friend.

Elizabeth Dalman, a new mother who lives near Anaheim, Calif., says the reaction to her breast-feeding in her Baptist church has always been polite, but she can tell at times that fellow congregants feel uncomfortable.

Dalman’s son, now 10 months, hates to nurse under those apronlike cover-ups that hide a nursing mothers' breasts -- but also babies' heads. After she nursed in her church's lobby recently, a woman informed her that the church provides such cover-ups.

In church, most people don’t want to get into a debate about breast-feeding, no matter their stance on the issue. But they may often feel more motivated elsewhere -- especially on the Internet.

A group of Mormon women formed Latter-day Lactivism and created a website to make breast-feeding an accepted part of life in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including in the ward houses, as local congregations are known.

"We represent the rights of LDS women to breast-feed their children in their ward houses,” the group’s mission statement reads. “We maintain that it is neither immodest nor immoral for a woman to breastfeed her child as openly as she pleases.”

Many churches, including ones in heavily Mormon Utah, where nursing rates are 9 percentage points higher than the national average, are welcoming to nursing mothers.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has no policy on breast-feeding, but encourages the practice in its guidelines for natural family planning education, according to Theresa Notare, assistant director of the USCCB's Natural Family Planning Program.

And an Internet search for meetings of La Leche League International, the most well-known breast-feeding advocacy group in the U.S., finds that many are held in churches.

But even a church that hosts La Leche may not feel comfortable for a breast-feeding woman on Sunday.

Barbara Emanuel, executive director of La Leche, says experiences vary from church to church, but it’s a shame that breast-feeding is an issue anywhere, given that “it’s what women’s bodies are made for,” and that for millennia, “it wasn’t discussed.”

“I don’t think mothers have a right to infringe on other peoples' right to participate in a service, or the right to hear the sermon,” Emanuel said.

“But basic baby noises shouldn’t be so disruptive that it would be a problem.”



  1. I breastfed my son 28 months, my daughter 6 (they quit when they were ready). The key to all of this is discretion…I nursed in church many times, and usually my pew-mates were totally unaware that my babies were doing anything other than sleeping. – Fawn

  2. Here in Honduras I see women breast-feeding all the time – in church, in training sessions of catechists, on public transportation, in the parks. It’s part of life ; there are innumerable images of Mary breast-feeding Jesus. There’s even one right outside the church in Copán Ruinas, a major tourist town.

    The body is not a commodity – nor a thing to be ignored and despised. The breast should not be treated not a sex object; It’s a gift God has given women to feed their children. If an infant needs to be fed, why should we prevent mothers from sharing that gift wherever.

    Rejoice in public breastfeeding – Jesus was breast fed!

  3. On vacation in Italy, I was astonished by the variety of paintings portraying a nursing Jesus, and by the variety of Mary’s attire. She was rarely portrayed nursing discretely, and I don’t think that modern maternity stores invented the nursing dress, either, judging from Mary’s attire. Furthermore, he was rarely portrayed as a newborn, rather a strapping toddler. So, who has the problem in our world today? Why?

  4. Ironically, the only reason this is even a topic of discussion on a religious web site is because of the Christian religion, which created the idea that we should be ashamed of our nakedness. This starts very early in their Bible at Genesis 3: 7, and then gets reaffirmed many other times throughout. It also establishes that man should have rule over women, starting in Genesis 3: 16, and then reaffirms this concept again, and again.
    It is no coincidence that in places in this world where the corrupting influence of Christianity has not tainted the thoughts of humans, breastfeeding in public is as common and natural as breathing, and women are considered equal to men, as it should be.

  5. The statues are made by man, and are not of Mary, but Semiramis, and the baby is Tammuz. God never wanted there to be any statues of anyone, this is idolatry.
    There should be no problem with breastfeeding anywhere as long as it is done modestly. Women have gotten so wrapped up in their rights to do it that they feel compelled to make sure everyone around them sees them practicing that right whether they like it or not.
    I nursed my children wherever we happened to be, but only in a discreet manner that offended no one and my babies were never upset about the burp cloth or light blanket that I used to cover up.

  6. It’s not Christ and His inspired messengers but Catholicism that has sexualized women’s breasts, especially nipples. Jesus spoke openly about female breasts and nipples (“teats”; “paps”) not as anything shameful but simply as factual.
    Breasts are not genitals (generative organs). That men enjoy fondling breasts and women enjoy their breasts being fondled does not make them into sex organs any more than earlobes, lips and other erotically sensitive non-genital parts of the body are sex organs.

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