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Breastfeeding in Church

Michaela Prentis

This article was offered for publication in the magazine of the Church of Scotland Woman's Guild, but was not accepted. It was doubtless too controversial.

A mother breast-feeding in public! Does it shock you? It shocks some members of my congregation, especially since the baby in question is now two years old. There I sit, and the most that anyone knows about me feeding the baby is the fact that he keeps quiet and I don't stand up for singing. Those sitting behind me can only see my shoulders above the pews. If anyone sitting in front of me turned backwards - assuming that their attention is not fully fixed to the pulpit or to their hymnbooks - I doubt whether they could see anything more than my rolled-up pullover and the baby's head. Still, I do sympathise with their embarrassment, for I too had to get used to feeding my baby in the presence of other people. A breast-feeding mother does not want to provoke; she wants to satisfy her child's needs.

In the nine months before the child is born he gets to know the sounds of his mother's body and her voice; he experiences love, warmth and security. The "bonding" that the doctors tell us starts at birth has already developed in the mother's womb. After the shock of birth the warm and secure womb is replaced by an endless, bright and cold world. His mother has been his only world so far, and he naturally wants to be as close to her as he can, increasing his independence only very slowly during the first three years after he is born. In the first year crying is almost his only means of communication, and his mother responds to it.

Most of his needs are satisfied at the breast. The baby knows how often and how much he needs to nurse, and to let him have his way is best for the mother too. Her body reacts to his demand. Trying to keep to a timetable increases the risk of inflammation and other problems and decreases the milk production. You can't time it. Babies are individuals responding to the given situation around and within themselves. Some of them, because they feel insecure, will want to suck when they are in a strange environment, such as in public, although they may have just been fed and would be happy otherwise.

Given their choice, some children wean quickly, but others may want to continue breast-feeding for 2 or 3 years or more, and why not? You can substitute mothers with bottles, dummies, baby-sitters and nurseries, and I am not writing this to condemn those who do it. Many of them have no choice and most of them believe that they are doing their best for their children. But substitutes are never as good as the real thing. Mother's milk is a perfect nourishment, changing its quality and quantity according to the child's need. It also protects the baby to a high degree against illness.

A baby should not be separated from his mother until he is at least three. What may sometimes seem to the mother to be excessive dependence in the early years is rewarded by greater confidence and maturity later on. A mother may influence the future of our society more by lovingly looking after her child than by taking an important job or a political position.

Modern medicine recognises the value of breast-feeding and the government is willing to support financially organisations promoting this old natural practice. But nothing is going to change much until society changes its attitude towards the breast-feeding mother. At the moment she is practically excluded from public life. Not so long ago a mother feeding her baby was asked to leave the Conservative Party Conference. My friend was told not to feed her son in a hospital waiting room. I spent a good part of a Sunday School training course feeding my baby in a side room so as not to cause embarrassment. Breast-feeding is God's design for mothers and babies, yet we can't be open about it; if we try we arouse more protest than a page 3 girl in a daily newspaper. Do we expect a mother to hide with her baby for most of the time during his first one to three years? Supposing she has further children she can effectively be excluded from public life for many years. Society rejects a mother breast-feeding in public, but often the only privacy it provides is a public toilet. How would you like to have your lunch served in a public toilet?

It is really difficult to keep a lively toddler quiet during a church service, but as long as a child is happy on his mother's breast, why exclude them both from the life of the congregation? Could not the Church make the first step? Would a breast-feeding mother find understanding and acceptance in your congregation, Guild or Young Woman's Group?

(The child is referred to throughout as 'he' to make the distinction between him and his mother easier.)
Written in 1989 when the author, then a wife of a minister of the Church of Scotland, lived in Durris, Scotland.