Those Medieval painters were a bit less puritanical than we moderns: A common motif in paintings was the Madonna Les Latte: the Virgin Mother breastfeeding the baby Jesus.

Back in those days, if a woman didn’t breast feed her baby, it died. Yes, upper class women often would find a “wet nurse” to provide nutrition,  and cows milk was available for older babies, but poor women breast fed their own children. And since Jesus came from a poor family, the realistic pictures of a loving mother feeding the One who came to save us was seen as a way to emphasize his humanity:

O Lord of Earth and Sea and Sky
How sweet it is to see Thee lie
Upon thy mother’s breast.

goes one old fashioned hymn.

Well, in our more prudish days, breastfeeding a child in public might get you arrested.

Yet in poorer countries, the risk of malnutrition and diarrhea from bottle feeding kills hundreds of thousands of poor children.

Since the Vatican is now promoting the use of the Breast feeding Madonna, as a way to remind us that Jesus was a real person, those  who work in maternal/child health in the third world welcome this as a way to promote breastfeeding among our patients.

From the Philippine Inquirer:

Nothing could stress its importance more than the image of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the Baby Jesus, according to Dr. Elvira Henares-Esguerra, director of Children for Breastfeeding and a fellow of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine.

“If breastfeeding was good enough for Baby Jesus, it’s good enough for our babies,” Esguerra says.

There are both health and emotional reasons to breast feed.

Breast milk is still the best food for babies as it contains the essential nutrients needed by the newborn, according to neuroscientist and molecular biologist Dr. Custer Deocaris.

Breastfeeding also develops love and compassion between mother and child, the cornerstone of Christian teachings, he adds.

People in rich countries don’t realize how important it is to breast feed babies in poorer countries.

Usually you read only about the health benefits: That breast feeding is easy to do, and benefits the baby.

But in the third world, the price of formula is often above the means of the average family, so as a result,  as the baby gets larger and needs more milk, instead the family will “water down” the formula, or wean the child early, supplementing the diet with other cheaper foods, which often lack enough protein or vitamins.

A second problem is that usually formula is sold as a powder, and has to be mixed with water. Here in town that is fine, but often in villages, the water supply might contain bacteria and viruses that cause diarrhrea, and for children,  diarrhea is a major cause of death. The third problem is trying to keep the bottles properly cleaned, inside and outside, when you might have to haul water from a well or a pump outside the house.

Yet the baby formula people have lots of money to advertise their products, and those ads imply that their product is better for the baby, and by showing glamourous moms with fat babies, imply that old fashioned breast feeding is now out of date if one wants to be modern and  up to date.

The boycott of Nestle and other baby formula companies has been going on for 30 plus years.

Here in the Philippines, it is illegal to advertise baby formula (although they do advertise for toddlers).

Here, most of the farmers we work with have their wives breast feed. However, the presence of “bottle teeth” (front teeth with cavities from falling asleep with a bottle in the mouth) in our farmers’ children shows that using the bottle, at least for older babies, is becoming a problem.

So the hope is that promotion of the Breastfeeding Madonna in our churches will help to emphasize the importance of breastfeeding as part of giving one’s child emotional and physical nourishment.

And who knows? Maybe the next time a prude objects to your breast feeding Junior quietly in a restaurant or public place, all you will have to do is pull out the Vatican approved picture of Madonna del Leche and say: If it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.



Andrea Solario
Milano 1465 circa – 1525
Madonna del cuscino verde – 1507 circa
olio su tavola РParigi РMus̬e du Louvre


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her blog is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket, and she writes medical essays at HeyDoc XangaBlog.

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