Tuesday 7 August 2012

Breastfeeding, Modesty, and the Church

There is arguably nowhere that should be more accepting and encouraging of breastfeeding than the Church. Our Creator God designed a beautifully functional system where mothers can nourish their growing babies directly from their breasts, with a number of additional benefits to both mother and baby. To use our breasts in this primary God-ordained purpose is to affirm His design as good and worthy.

Breastfeeding is a mother's first foray into learning to read, trust, and respond to her child's cues. The infant, likewise, develops a strong emotional security as he learns to trust that his needs will be quickly and appropriately responded to. The more sensitive a mother becomes to her child's cues, the better the child becomes at giving those cues. This is the beginning of communication and connection between mother and child. As connection grows, the mother/child relationship becomes increasingly natural and instinctive, resulting in a foundational mutual trust and sensitivity upon which the relationship will continue to build.

Yet too often the misguided and misconstrued notion of modesty that permeates much of the church hides breastfeeding women away in back rooms, or at the very least under a blanket, suggesting that breastfeeding is somehow dirty, shameful, or inappropriate for public. Has so much of the church so easily succumbed to our culture's misconstruction that breasts are primarily sexual?

Many women, including myself, are fortunate to belong to a church that accepts and even affirms the natural role breasts play in nourishing our children. Too many others, however, experience the opposite, asked to remove themselves to a private place because the act of breastfeeding might "cause a man to stumble" or because "children shouldn't see that."

This is what happens when the focus of modesty becomes merely covering up our bodies. It reduces men to slavering dogs and women to tantalizing temptresses, affirming our culture's message that breasts are primarily sexual.

Such messages are demeaning, insulting, and damaging.

They are demeaning to women who are made to feel ashamed of their bodies. Hidden away in back rooms or asked to cover up, many find themselves discouraged, berated, shamed, and even compared to strippers. Some women are made to feel so uncomfortable that the breastfeeding relationship itself becomes threatened. Other women lose out as well without the example of mothers nursing in their presence, particularly because breastfeeding is a right-brained activity that is best learned by imitation rather than instruction. Breastfeeding will never be considered normative if it is never seen. Have we become so afraid of our God-designed bodies that we fear "causing a man to stumble" by feeding our babies?

They are insulting to men who are treated as uncontrollable beasts at the mercy of their sexual impulses. When breastfeeding is suggested to be immodest, the implication is that a man is unable to control his thoughts at the mere glimpse of a piece of a woman's skin as her child latches on. Taught to fear both their desires and women's bodies, the body paradoxically becomes the focus. Rather than encouraging responsibility, compassion, and self-control, the source of discomfort (a woman breastfeeding her child) is removed, and so the cycle continues.

They are damaging to our sons and daughters of all ages who lose the opportunity to see breastfeeding as a natural, God-designed method of feeding babies. We deny children and young adults the chance to witness breasts being used for their primary purpose, leaving them at the mercy of secular culture where they soon learn to view breasts as sexual objects. And thus the cycle is perpetuated: breasts are shameful and breastfeeding is to be hidden away.

They are damaging to the church body who loses the richness of the breastfeeding imagery used throughout Scripture. (See, for example, Genesis 49:25, Isaiah 49:15, Isaiah 60:16, Isaiah 66:10-11, and Psalm 22:9.) While Song of Solomon acknowledges the breasts' beauty and sexual nature (as well as that of the lips, face, hair, neck, arms, legs, and more), it is the picture of breasts as a source of loving nourishment and sustenance that takes center stage throughout Scripture. The Hebrew El Shaddai can be literally translated as "God of many breasts". When breastfeeding is treated as a necessary evil, tucked away for fear of the breasts' secondary sexual nature, the totality of the breastfeeding relationship between mother and child is not witnessed: the baby's full-bodied eagerness as he reaches for the breast, the bonding and responsiveness between the pair as they gaze at each other, the baby's utter satisfaction afterwards. That imagery is part of the whole and to miss it is to miss the full picture of the relationship between God and His children.

But what about modesty?

Scripture affirms modesty in the sense of godly character rather than the superficial beauty of outward adornment and expensive attire (1 Timothy 2: 8-10). Such modesty seeks to live a life that gives glory to God rather than to Self (much as the sacrificial and worshipful aspects of breastfeeding do).

When we reduce modesty to merely a way of dress, however, we lose the depth of the true meaning of modesty. Modesty is primarily an internal attitude, an inner sense of humbleness, comportment, character, and self-control that goes far deeper than the superficial level too many in the church hold to. The focus on clothing - sleeve length, skirt length, neckline, and so on - rather than the heart is a shameful distortion and reduction of that deeper, internal modesty.

Tracy beautifully describes her devastating experience with this nuance in her piece Perverting Modesty:
"With this attempt to dress me by this new definition of modestly, my genuine modesty of person was replaced with a fixation on a superficial modesty of shoulders and knees being covered...This modesty fetish has perverted the idea of true humbleness into a niche clothing market."
Of course, there is room for thoughtful respect of others. However, there is a difference between being discrete and hiding the act of breastfeeding entirely. There is no need to expose oneself more than necessary, but neither should a woman feel compelled to drape a blanket over her baby or move to another room. These things are welcome options, certainly, for those who feel most comfortable nursing in that manner, but the expectation of such a thing should have no place in our society. The distortion of what modesty means is reflected in every suggestion that feeding a hungry baby is immodest or improper.

The church is not the only place that routinely shames women for breastfeeding in public. Stores, restaurants, and other public areas are often likewise squeamish, ordering women to leave despite laws throughout Canada and most of the United States that protect a woman's right to breastfeed in any public area. Yet it is the church, mindful of the purity, goodness, and appropriateness of God's creations, that should be leading culture in this regard, not following along behind it.


The 20th annual World Breastfeeding Week takes place from August 1-7, 2012. This year's focus is "understanding the past, planning for the future."

Join the Natural Parents Network in celebrating World Breastfeeding Week with their annual WBW blog hop!


  1. Yes! One thing I have noticed is how common breastfeeding is in historical fine art. That may not be a great indicator of the acceptance of unashamed breastfeeding, because fine art often has models in various states of undress.

    However, Mary Cassatt and other who portrayed sweet pictures of families didn't shy away from painting pictures of moms breastfeeding their babies in a much more modest era than today! I have run across this time and time again as I've looked for art for my blog. The shame about breastfeeding is something fairly new.

  2. I think the way a woman breastfeeds in public/around men is the biggest issue. Some women do it in a very discreet manner using their shirt to cover most of the breast. When I first started I always used a cover but with my second I felt comfortable enough with a nursing cami and a shirt and I didn't show any skin. Just a baby snuggled up to my body. I started nursing that way and even when latching there are ways to be very discreet.

    However some women just pull their whole shirt down and expose half the breast in an exhibitionist almost proud style and honestly if I were sitting with my husband it would bother me because I think that is flaunting breasts instead of nursing in a modest manner. Just my two cents. I think the attitude of the woman makes the difference.

    I will say I had a bad experience at a MOPS group with a bunch of women when I started nursing my newborn without a cover. I was being discreet but several women seemed uncomfortable and one made a comment about how when she's out and about she pumps and uses a bottle. I was offended by how they acted. So strange!

    1. One thing to consider is that there are variations among babies. I've always tried to be discreet, but my son would refuse to nurse without a large portion of my breast around my nipple was exposed. Quite early on, he started doing this himself - pulling my shirt away and uncovering my breast. As for nursing covers, don't even get me started on those. If I try to cover him at all while he's nursing, he'll just start howling.

      So I think it's important to realize that being judgemental of other women isn't really helpful - especially if you don't know the circumstances she's dealing with. Maybe she is being exhibitionist, and maybe she's just doing the best she can. I think that a better policy is to just be as accepting as possible of everyone's unique quirks, and to move or avert your eyes if it bothers you.

    2. I have to agree here. I try very hard to be as 'modest' as I can while breastfeeding, but I often have to bear a section of my breast to get my little one to feed properly. I do make sure to keep the nipple covered always as that seems to be the biggest deal to people. As far as covers, my girls just toss them around and play with them actually causing much more of a scene than if I just feed my child.

      Something I do find funny is that often I"m not exposing any more breast than most the women around me are with their low cut shirts, but since a baby is (*gasp*) feeding at my breast I;m the one who gets dirty looks.

  3. Just reading another blog post about this the other day. One commenter mentioned how she was visiting in a Catholic church and asked the priest where the nursing room was. He smiled, broadly indicated the entire sanctuary with a wave of his hands, and told her she and her baby were welcome there. It was beautiful, and led to a discussion of whether Catholics, with their veneration of the mother figure in Mary, were in general more comfortable with breastfeeding than evangelicals as a group. Interesting food for thought.

    I have nursed in public often. I have never had an issue anywhere, never been asked to leave, never even gotten a hairy eye from anyone. That said, it is in church that I've felt the most obligated to remove myself to the nursing room - not because there's a "rule" but because all the mothers use it so there's a sense of peer pressure, though I might be perceiving disapproval where there is none. My kids have all been wiggly, disruptive babies so it's a relief for me to take them to another room where I know their shenanigans aren't bothering anybody.

    1. As nice as it is to know that you're welcome to nurse anywhere in the church, I had problems when my baby was born, and had to hike my shirt up to my chin to get a latch. Unfortunately there was no crying room or nursing room, so I had nowhere I was comfortable nursing that also let me hear the mass.

      I agree that I've never had an encounter with someone who objects to me feeding my daughter during mass (although I did once meet someone who went to the back room in case someone was offended), but from what I've seen online, there are fewer issues of "you shouldn't be breastfeeding here" and more of "I don't care how young that child is, they shouldn't be eating at mass". (Which is more obviously ridiculous).

  4. This deserves a gold medal. Thankyou for being the voice of sense!

  5. Yes indeed! Of all the places we should feel free to breastfeed (and we should feel free to feed anywhere!), church should be up there as a place where we are not judged. And besides, what a great way to settle an upset baby or toddler! Thanks for your sensitive, wise post.

  6. We see this divide in atheist communities as well. There's the (largely masculine) "college kid" crowd and then there's the more family oriented groups. I've found that organizations primarily made up of the former really aren't very tolerant of kids generally, and especially not breastfeeding. If babies are allowed at all, nursing is definitely frowned upon. But I've had a really experience with my group - my baby comes with me everywhere and I've breastfed at board meetings, at events, during dinners.. and always felt very supported.

    The interesting thing is that there are childfree people in both groups. You might think that childfree people (people who don't have and never want children) would be generally intolerant of kids, but actually many have been invaluable Honorary Aunts and Uncles.

  7. This is the best article on breastfeeding I've ever read. Thank you so much for sharing.

  8. Wow! Thank you so much! I have fed both of my daughters in church and have only received encouragement from others! While both girls were tiny and were harder to latch on I retired to the cry room for my own comfort as well as that of those around me. Our pastor is so supportive of family in all it's forms. He even welcomes the toddlers that just have to wander up onto the stage to say hello!

    While we embrace breast feeding in any public place, we need to also be mindful of those who, despite all attempts & determination, are unable to & have to formula feed. I have two beautiful friends who have found themselves in this situation, & who have had judgement poured upon them. As Christians we embrace the amazing gift of breast feeding, and love and support without judgement those who are unable to.