Breastfeeding is sacred. 

–This post is part of our 10-year anniversary series “Breastfeeding is…”

Breastfeeding is sacred.

Photo by Anna B

Breastfeeding shows up in a myriad of religious texts, and across most religions, breastfeeding is encouraged and revered as a sacred act.

In Rabbinic texts “…nursing is more than food—it plays a key role in transmitting religion, values and culture,” BJ Woodstein BFC, IBCLC writes in her piece on breastfeeding and Judaism.

Photo by Kampus Production

Breastfeeding and the Baha ́ ’ı ́ Faith documents that “Baha ́’ı ́ Writings clearly endorse breast-feeding…the frequent use of the language of human lactation in positive symbolic terms identifies breastfeeding as a practice that is both dignified and worthy of juxtaposition with the sacred.”

In Chinese religious and philosophical culture, which includes the syncretism of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and the theory of Yin and Yang, this is also true. In Taoism for example, it has been written that “the conditions of oceanic ecstasy correspond to the experience of symbiotic unity of a baby and its mother during the period of foetal development and of breast feeding.” [Tortchinov, 1996, p. 20]

Art by: Khou Vue
Courtesy of the Hmong Breastfeeding Coalition

Across most Native American groups, breastfeeding is revered as the first sacred food; their traditions have been largely passed down orally instead of documented in sacred texts.

Religious dietary rules and their potential nutritional and health consequences further details how most major religions encourage prolonged breastfeeding and other feeding indications.

In Islam, “a woman who breastfeeds more than five times a day a child who is not hers before the age of 2 years becomes a ‘milk mother’ for this child, who is then acknowledged as a full sibling to the foster-mother’s other children. This prohibits any possibility of subsequent marriage between them (sura 4: ayat 23).” The authors note that these rules have implications for human milk banking in Islamic countries.

Photo by Fatima Yusuf

Sucharita Sarkar’s article Pregnancy, Birthing, Breastfeeding and Mothering: Hindu Perspectives from Scriptures and Practices looks at the regulations of pregnancy, birthing, and breastfeeding in Ayurvedic treatises, and at representations of mothering in Vedic and Puranic texts.

Sarkar begins “Vedic and Ayurvedic texts glorify breastfeeding and project it as a natural attribute and sacred duty of good mothers. The Atharva Veda compares lactating breasts to pitchers full of divine nectar. Ayurvedic treatises like the Sushruta Samhita eulogise the nourishing powers of breastmilk and, by extension, of the lactating vessels, that is, the mother:

May the four oceans of the earth contribute to the secretion of milk in thy breasts for the purpose of improving the bodily strength of the child. O, thou with a beautiful face, may the child, reared on your milk, attain a long life, like the gods made immortal with drinks of ambrosia.”

Photo by Smadar Bergman

Where fasting is relevant, there are special considerations for individuals who are pregnant and/or lactating. Ramadan Mubarak: Breastfeeding in Islam and Religious Fasting and Breastfeeding cover many of those distinctions.

Author Beatriz shares about her initiation into Santeria– an amalgamation of Yoruba beliefs and Catholicism– as a nursing mother in this Brown Girls Out Loud piece.

Photo by Luiza Braun

With more than half of the world’s population practicing some kind of religion, religious interventions can be an effective way to support breastfeeding.

One study found that Catholic women are more at risk to intend and practice exclusive formula feeding than women of other religious affiliations.

In partnership, the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control Bureau of Community Health and Chronic Disease Prevention, Eat Smart Move More South Carolina, Palmetto Health Richland Hospital, and the South Carolina Breastfeeding Coalition created a toolkit entitled Creating a Mother-Friendly Environment for your Faith-Based Organization.

Buddhist nuns on the move: an innovative approach to improving breastfeeding practices in Cambodia assessed the impact of Buddhist nuns and wat grannies on breastfeeding behavior in rural Cambodia and found an 11 percent increase in breastfeeding initiation in the first hour after birth when mothers interacted with the nuns.

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Photo by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz

As part of our celebration, we are giving away an online learning module with contact hours each week. Here’s how to enter into the drawings:

Email info@ourmilkyway.org with your name and “OMW is 10” in the subject line.

This week, in the body of the email, please share any experiences that you have had with infant feeding in a religious context.

Subsequent weeks will have a different prompt in the blog post.

We will conduct a new drawing each week over the 10-week period.  Please email separately each week to be entered in the drawing. You may only win once. If your name is drawn, we will email a link with access to the learning module. The winner of the final week will score a grand finale swag bag.

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