by Theresa Notare
August 10, 2007
Recently a report on a tragedy in Botswana puzzled its medical community. Record numbers of babies died of common diarrhea, in a country where that had rarely happened. The cause? Over a decade of an aggressive anti-AIDS policy that discouraged breastfeeding among HIV infected mothers. Remarkably, in a follow-up study of the tragedy, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that breastfed babies did not die from the diarrhea outbreak.
Botswana had been a country where the majority of mothers commonly practiced breastfeeding. Once HIV/AIDS surfaced as a public health problem, however, government officials implemented a policy of discouraging breastfeeding and encouraging formula feeding of infants whose mothers were HIV infected. They thought they were protecting babies, but they put their children at greater risk of suffering other devastating illnesses. Why? As the Washington Post pointed out on July 23, 2007, the chances of an HIV infected mother passing the disease through breast milk is "about 1 percent per month of breastfeeding." Breastfeeding research shows that the "nutrition and antibodies that breast milk provide are so crucial to young children" that their benefits should be carefully weighed against the risk of HIV transmission.
Breast milk is Mother Nature's "power drink." Research confirms its nutritional and immunological benefits. Breast milk reduces a baby's risk of contracting over twenty illnesses, including allergies, asthma, bacterial meningitis, diarrhea, ear infections, inflammatory bowel disease, leukemia, multiple sclerosis, type 1 and type 2 diabetes. And a woman who breastfeeds reaps benefits for her body too. As breastfeeding advocate Sheila Kippley reports, "one study found that a mother reduced her own risk of getting type-2 diabetes by 15% for each year of nursing. If she nursed two babies, each for a year, she had a 30% risk reduction for this disease, and whatever reduction she received remained in effect for 15 years after the birth of her last baby!"
Breastfeeding also builds up the mother-child bond on an emotional and spiritual level. As Pope John Paul II said in a talk to members of the Pontifical Academy of Science in 1995, "this natural way of feeding can create a bond of love and security between mother and child, and enable the child to assert its presence as a person through the interaction with the mother." So meaningful is the breastfeeding relationship, he added, that "the Psalms use the image of the infant at its mother's breast as a picture of God's care for man (cf. Ps 22:9)."
Despite its overwhelming benefits, breastfeeding continues to be little attempted by new mothers in the United States. This is a problem. With our concern for the welfare of the family, the Church can help. Catholic hospitals are in a particularly good position to advise and educate the new mother before and after she gives birth. Diocesan Natural Family Planning classes can take the time to cover basic breastfeeding information. Finally, friends and family also play a role in the new mother's decision to breastfeed. Children should be given a solid start in life – a plentiful serving of nature's power drink is a great beginning!
Theresa Notare, MA is the Assistant Director of the Diocesan Development Program for Natural Family Planning, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.