3. Humanae Vitae Dialogue: Ecological Breastfeeding

This is the third of several blogs stemming from an exchange of views with a person who has expressed his dissent from the teaching affirmed by the encyclical Humanae Vitae. My dissenter’s responses will be in italics.

In my first reply to the invitation to a conference on The Greening of the Good News, I emphasized the greenness of Catholic teaching on birth control.  
       “Humanae Vitae specifically allows the use of natural methods of conception control and encourages the teaching of natural family planning (NFP).  My wife, Sheila, and I have been involved in the NFP apostolate since 1969.  A unique emphasis in our teaching has been ecological breastfeeding (EBF) as a form of NFP.  It can be called the most natural form of natural family planning.  In our two studies, the mothers who followed the Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding averaged 14.5 months of breastfeeding amenorrhea.  Only 7% had their periods return before six months, and about a third were still in amenorrhea at 18 months postpartum.  The benefits of this practice to both mother and baby are tremendous.  What could be greener! The late Alfonso Cardinal Lopez Trujillo wrote the Foreword to the 1999 edition of Sheila’s Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing and to her Breastfeeding and Catholic Motherhood published in 2005.  Our studies are at our website below.”

The diseenter replied that his wife breastfed their babies, and they had seven children in ten years. 

I responded as follows: 
      “Just within the last week, Sheila has received emails from two different mothers, respectively at 18 and 21 months postpartum, still waiting for the return of periods and fertility.  Both are within a normal distribution.  One would be within the second standard deviation, the other in the third SD. 
       You mentioned breastfeeding as part of your marriage, but it is extremely unlikely that your wife did “ecological” breastfeeding because it wasn’t part of the American culture at that time.   Our first child was born in 1964, and Sheila engaged in cultural breastfeeding because she was part of the culture, experiencing a scant three months before her first postpartum period.  Two years later and with the advice of a different doctor, she did what we now call ecological breastfeeding and had a year of BF amenorrhea. 
      Thanks to prodding from a friend, Sheila did extensive library research on breastfeeding infertility, wrote a book, and then we did two studies.  We had to coin the term ‘ecological breastfeeding’ to distinguish it from the common cultural breastfeeding patterns that provide almost nothing by way of BF infertility.  Sheila has written several very practical books on this subject.  Just last year, she published The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding: The Frequency Factor.  It supplies research to support each of the Seven Standards.  These are maternal behaviors that keep the baby with the mother and allow the baby to suckle as frequently as he wishes.  For a brief explanation, go to our website, click on the NFP manual, and go to Chapter Six.  For the research at our website,  select the 1972 and 1989 reports.”

My correspondent replied: 
        From what you say, I think ecological breastfeeding simply means letting the baby feed when it wants to. If so, we were practicing ecological breastfeeding from the start, because Pat was always at home and fed her babies when they wanted it. But we still produced seven babies in ten years.  So, that’s my anecdote, but it doesn’t prove anything, but neither do the two anecdotes you mention, which described longer periods of infertility.

I made one last clarification:
        “With regard to EBF, we have had to clarify its meaning.  I think I explained earlier that we coined the term ‘ecological breastfeeding’ to distinguish it from the kind of breastfeeding common in our culture.  Now we know that we have to specify that ecological breastfeeding entails the maternal practices of the Seven Standards.  One of those Standards is not to use pacifiers.  Believe it or not, there is research showing that the use of the pacifier reduces the amount of suckling, sort of a no-brainer.  But that transfer in suckling from the breast to a pacifier helps to bring about an earlier return of fertility.  When your children and our children were babies, pacifiers were ubiquitous.  I suspect that your wife used them.  We used them for our first, but then Sheila learned more about these things.  We didn’t have a bottle or a pacifier in the house with our last four children.  Another Standard is to sleep with your baby for night feedings.  This was certainly a big taboo when our first children were babies.  We certainly didn’t sleep with our first, but then we learned that bed sharing is a better way and plays an important role in maintaining breastfeeding amenorrhea.” 

We haven’t had any further conversation on that subject.  His situation was common in the early Sixties, and I think that’s a big reason for the rebellion against Humanae Vitae.  The church-going Catholics by and large had not yet accepted contraception, they had large families with very frequent birth intervals, and they knew almost nothing about NFP – either systematic or EBF. 

What bothers me at the present time is this.  Since 1969 – yes, 40 years ago – we have been providing the practical help of spacing babies naturally with ecological breastfeeding.  However, once our participation in the NFP movement comes to an end, what NFP organization is going to keep the message alive?  We have only a few teachers and have no financial base to provide long-term organizational support.  For reasons that have never been adequately explained, even CCL, our former organization, now refuses to teach EBF as a form of natural family planning.  It is painful to realize that almost all Catholics are still as much in the dark about EBF as we and our correspondents were in the early Sixties, and it is equally painful to realize that the rest of the NFP movement is doing nothing to help them to understand and enjoy ecological breastfeeding as God’s own plan for spacing babies. 

Next week: Humanae Vitae dissenter and conscience

John F. Kippley
Sex and the Marriage Covenant

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