Is Breastfeeding Modest?
First of all, I am not a lactation consultant or anything like that. I have breastfed five babies and teach childbirth classes in which I cover breastfeeding basics. But I’m not claiming any special knowledge on the topic. Breastfeeding does carry a special importance to me. It was a hot topic last week on our Facebook page due to the LDS Living breastfeeding in public poll. There were a lot of different opinions on their website. What I was struck with as I read comments was the need to support a woman no matter where she is in her breastfeeding experiences.
Did you know the LDS church is pro-breastfeeding?
The lds.org website includes information on the importance of breastfeeding which also stresses the need to nurse for at least 12 months. The Latter-Day Woman Manual, Part B states, “Breast milk, especially during the days immediately following birth, is the best food for a baby. Rarely is a child unable to tolerate a mother’s milk.”
The Latter-Day Woman Manual, Part A offers even more information,
“Our Heavenly Father made the mother’s body so it could produce milk. This milk is made especially for human babies to drink. It is better for babies than milk from animals. The first fluid that comes from the mother’s breasts after a new baby is born is also important. It contains substances that help protect the baby from diseases for the first few months.
Sometimes for health reasons a mother cannot breast-feed her baby. Milk from cows or goats or prepared formulas can also be used, but the mother must take greater care to keep the milk sanitary. A mother should breast-feed her baby if she can. The mother’s diet influences how much milk she produces for the baby. A mother who eats enough good foods and drinks enough water can usually produce enough milk for her baby.
• Why do some mothers not breast-feed their babies? Why is the fluid that comes before milk good for babies? Besides nutrition and disease prevention for the baby, what are some other advantages of breast-feeding?” (167)
Given that breastfeeding is best for our babies we should not put any restrictions on the mother to provide this nourishment. Asking a nursing mother to leave or embarrassing her, might be the deal breaker for her to stop nursing. In a religion where family is so highly valued and emphasized it would seem that breastfeeding should also be just as supported.
Becoming comfortable with breastfeeding, especially in public, has been a process for me. I have been the mom who searched for the quiet corner, the mom who stayed where she was with a nursing cover and the mom who just nursed discreetly, no cover at all, standing in line at Disney World. I feel like I have done it all.
Looking back I asked myself why I felt so uncomfortable giving nourishment to my baby in public and I realized I was merely a product of the breastfeeding culture I grew up in. Why do I blame culture? I have lived in and visited other countries where breastfeeding did not carry a sexual stigma. As a missionary in the Dominican Republic it was common for a mother to openly nurse her baby or toddler in front of us or the elders. There was no such thing as discreet nursing. It was open and no shame was attached to the act.
As I read through the scriptures I am struck by the fact that male prophets commonly chose images of pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and mothering to teach gospel principles. Why did they use these images and symbols? They were commonly witnessed and easily relatable.
If you are to look at art from past centuries, there are many images of mothers breastfeeding their babies without a special cover or without even being discreet. In fact, Mary is often depicted openly nursing the baby Jesus not only as an infant but as a little boy. Breasts were recognized for the physiological function of nourishing babies and were not considered dirty or immodest when used this way. See this facebook page for some great examples: https://www.facebook.com/HistoricBreastfeedingPhotos?ref=ts
References to nursing in scriptures:
In fact, there are some wonderful pieces of art from Mormon history depicting women openly breastfeeding their babies in Sacrament meeting (without a cover) or sitting among mixed company.
Read more about these this painting here: http://rixarixa.blogspot.com/2010/08/breastfeeding-history-moment-lds.html
Read more about this painting here: http://rixarixa.blogspot.com/2011/02/breastfeeding-history-moment-mormon.html
So when and how did this change? My thoughts are that during WWII when mothers were asked to go back to work that meant putting their babies on formula. I have talked with many elderly women who although they were not working were told their milk was too thin and they had to put their baby on formula. Formula companies pushed their products on doctors who in turn pushed them on mothers. A lot of money is involved in formula feeding. As a result, millions of mothers did not breastfeed and that meant millions of daughters and sons not seeing it as natural and normal. What happens when the physiologic function of the breast is lost? It is only seen as sexual. Do we owe in part the rampant nature of pornography to the absence of the physiology of the breast? We are also reminded that,
“The scriptures often refer respectfully but plainly to the body and its parts… It is the world that makes the divinely created body an object of carnal lust. For example, it makes the female breasts primarily into sexual enticements, while the truth is that they were intended to nourish and comfort children… Teach your children that they will find joy in their bodies when they use them virtuously after the manner taught by Christ” (37, A Parent’s Guide, 1985).
Rixa Freeze, PhD, also posted some food for thought on the need for breastfeeding to be witnessed instead of hidden: http://rixarixa.blogspot.com/2011/11/problem-with-nursing-covers.html. And A Bee In Your Bonnet shared her thoughts in this post, “Modesty and Breastfeeding.”
Is breastfeeding in public (especially church) immodest?
I’m not going to try to determine that for you. I have come to a place where I feel it is a personal decision. We make a big deal out of modesty in the church. I’m not saying modesty and discretion are not important. I like what Gordon B. Hinckley had to say about modesty, “I am not asking you to be prudish. I am asking you to be virtuous, and I think there is a vast difference between the two” (New Era, November 2011).
What does it mean to be prudish? From the Merriam –Webster online dictionary:
Prude – a person who is excessively or priggishly attentive to propriety or decorum; especially : a woman who shows or affects extreme modesty
And I had fun learning a new word:
Prig – one who offends or irritates by observance of proprieties (as of speech or manners) in a pointed manner or to an obnoxious degree
I am not trying to point fingers about who is and is not a prude or a prig (those names make me giggle) but in my opinion a woman who is breastfeeding is every bit virtuous.
The best guide for modesty I try to follow is this question, “Ask yourself, ‘Would I feel comfortable with my appearance if I were in the Lord’s presence?’” (For Strength of Youth). Would I breastfeed in front of the Savior? Absolutely. No question. I can only imagine his heart breaking if I turned away my little one especially if it were time to partake of the Lord’s Sacrament. Jesus did say “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). Breastfeeding itself is symbolic of the Savior and His Living Water. He would not want me to miss that sacred ordinance. I need the bread and water each week just as my little one needs the “living water” I can provide to her. With that in mind, I also do not like to miss out on the testimonies, talks, or lessons. Why should the mother feeding with a bottle be accepted in class and not the breastfeeding mother?
With that in mind I recognize that because of our current culture it might distract someone if they knew I was breastfeeding in church meetings. I don’t think they would even know unless they sat right next to me and really looked closely. I also like to keep in mind that our sons and daughters need to see breastfeeding to accept it as normal and natural. I would much rather my son saw me or other moms breastfeeding than be submitted to the sexual manner in which breasts are represented in the media. But how many people would be offended by the breastfeeding mother but not by the scantily clad woman on the screen? How many of our children commonly see plenty of cleavage but not the breastfeeding mother?
Sadly, I have felt more comfortable in the general public nursing than inside the church building because of comments I have heard from women, not men, about “that woman” nursing openly at a Relief Society Activity (no men were in attendance). I’m thankful that mother did not hear the comment but I did and I was new to nursing and it affected how I felt about nursing at a church meeting.
I have also searched the LDS handbook 2 online and have found no reference to breastfeeding at all. There is nothing that says it should not happen within church meetings. I do recognize that with some babies they have to get latched on in a quiet space or that the mother just feels more comfortable excusing herself (sometimes I am that woman). Thank goodness for the mother’s lounge, if you prefer it, especially when breastfeeding is new to you or you have a baby that is easily distracted. I do have to admit that the mother’s lounge can be very distracting too. A mother needs to be where she feels safe and comfortable for let-down to occur. I just support the breastfeeding mama, you go girl!
Just remember that if someone, with or without intent, says something to degrade you for breastfeeding your baby, they are only a product of their culture. They “know not what they do.” It is our responsibility to speak up. Whenever a moment like that arises, I say a quiet prayer in my heart that I will just the right things that they need to hear so they walk away with a better understanding of how the Lord values breastfeeding.
Looking back over my adventures through breastfeeding I am filled with a sense of gratitude for the people who helped me along the way. Many times it was small and simple things that they did or did not do. I appreciate not being criticized for nursing in a quiet corner, with a cover, or without a cover in the midst of crowds of people. I’m sure along the way there were people who refrained from criticizing (or at least said it outside my earshot). Nonetheless, I was not belittled for putting the needs of my baby first and for that I am grateful.
With all that said, please remember to not judge the bottle feeding mother. She is a product of our breastfeeding culture and may have lacked the support needed or be the rare case that is unable to breastfeed. Maybe she didn’t see enough moms breastfeeding to know it mattered. Maybe she tried her heart out to make it work but it was not to be.
Please remember to leave comments that are in a spirit of love. Support your sistas’!