In the mid-1970s it was calculated that all family planning methods, including condoms, IUD’s and birth control pills provided only 24 million couple years of protection from pregnancy, while exclusive breastfeeding, which was prevalent in the developing world, provided 31.5 million. It became standard practice, after this finding, to promote breastfeeding not only for its nutrient but also for its effect in preventing births. This, it seems to me, explains why various UN agencies are reluctant to make exceptions for poor women in conflict situations, who are too starved to give nourishing human milk, by substituting infant formula.
But it is not enough to stop at the birth-preventive and nutrient effects of breastfeeding. As Robert L. Jackson, MD, wrote in the preface of the book, Breastfeeding and Natural Family Planning: Selected Papers from the Fourth National and International Symposium on Natural Family Planning (Glen Echo, MD: KM Associates, 1986)
"Breastfeeding is not only a means of supplying nutrients to the baby but also automatically provides an intimate relation (bonding) between the mother and her baby. Until recently, bonding and the sensuous effect from breastfeeding were poorly appreciated in Western society."
Certainly, when I chose to breastfeed our children in the 1960s only 25 percent of mothers did so. Without proper support I only managed it for four months. It would have made spacing the children on natural family planning (NFP) much easier, since the first six months postpartum are considered infertile if the mother is fully breastfeeding; much longer usually.
I, myself, chose the practice more for bonding than nutrition. This is where the challenge is today. While all mothers are encouraged to breastfeed by the US Breastfeeding Committee, there is too great a tendency to see breast milk primarily as a product of healthy nutrition and not an essential means of intimacy between mother and child. Indeed, it may be inevitable to pump breast milk if a mother of an infant works outside the home, but it surely is not the ideal. Mother and baby belong together. No substitute can really take the place of the mother’s presence in those early years (See blog next month). Too often, especially in France, recourse was had to wet nurses with deleterious effects on children, family and society, as I outline in my book, The Holy Family Model Not Exception; not to mention the pressure to develop contraceptives devices from the absence of the amenorrhea of breastfeeding.
It has been said that the mother taking care of an infant without breastfeeding is like marriage without conjugal intercourse. Of course, there are mothers who, for various reasons, are unable to breastfeed. For them the bottle with infant formula is a boon. Such mothers must seek other ways to foster intimacy and be present to their children. After all, such presence, not the fundamental act of feeding, is essential. But, it seems to me, it should only apply to a minority of mothers not the majority. Here it is difficult to see how giving breast milk in a bottle differs radically from feeding formula through a bottle.
What about the father’s role? First, he must fully endorse his wife’s decision to stay home with the baby. His body is not equipped to breastfeed the baby. That is not to say he is expendable; his role is to give protection to the mother not to substitute for her. In this way Joseph and Mary were exemplary.