A Sacred Act: How Religious Groups Can Support Nursing Mothers

This article was originally published on the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance’s website. As with articles published on Sacred Stories, it is meant to strengthen the capacity of all faith-based organizations to live out their faith-based missions. If you are already a Sacred Sector participant, log into the Participant Portal to access the toolbox resources. If your organization is interested in becoming a Sacred Sector participant, click here.

By Chelsea Langston Bombino

Faith-based organizations and congregations often play a vital role in supporting the health and well-being of families, particularly mothers and young children. Many religious organizations believe the family is a foundational institution in society, created by God to serve as a first community for children. Many faith groups recognize the inherent beauty in God’s normative design for women to nurse their babies. By God’s great design, there is evidence-based research that shows how breastfeeding contributes to better whole-person (physical/mental, economic, relational) outcomes for all involved. Although breastfeeding is not always possible or practicable for every mother and child, there is strong evidence that breastfeeding has positive impacts on individual family members and on society.

And this is not a happy accident. Many faith traditions teach that God created most mothers with the capacity to provide physical, emotional and even spiritual nourishment to their babies through the somatic act of nursing. In fact, we see in Psalms 22:9-10 that that God makes himself known even to nursing infants: “…You made me trust you at my mother’s breasts…from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” Sacred texts also use mother’s milk metaphorically to describe God’s sustenance for our souls: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2).

Breastfeeding keeps both mother and baby healthy in the short-term and the long-term. Breastmilk has unique nutrients and antibodies that are specifically tailored to the needs and developmental stages of the nursing child. Breastfed babies receive heightened protection against a host of illnesses, from asthma and ear infections to childhood obesity and leukemia. Additionally, nursing helps women heal after childbirth, helps them connect emotionally to their babies and even has been shown to lower the risk for women to develop Type 2 diabetes, ovarian cancer and breast cancer. Breastfeeding has been shown to positively impact whole communities: it saves infant lives, it lowers medical expenses and it results in fewer missed days of work (due to a sick child).

Houses of worship, faith-based social services agencies, religious schools and other faith-based groups and employers can support breastfeeding among their employees, congregants, services recipients and communities in a variety of ways. Unfortunately, the media coverage of breastfeeding in relation to religious groups centers almost solely on the narrow debate of whether women should nurse uncovered in church. That is not the focus of this article. Rather, this article seeks to address how faith-based organizations can consider what their sacred beliefs and identities call them to in navigating how to empower women to nurse and/or express breastmilk for their children.

Houses of worship and faith-based nonprofits should consider asking themselves the following:

  • How will the current public policy landscape and emerging legal trends with respect to breastfeeding and milk expression shape and impact our organization’s ability to support our workers, services recipients, congregants and communities?

  • What organizational practices, institutional policies and cultural rituals might we consider adopting to honor the role our organizational faith calls us to play in removing barriers to women breastfeeding and/or pumping in our organization?  

  • How can we contribute to the organization’s positive public positioningthrough media coverage and awareness campaigns that highlight our faith-based motivations to support nursing moms?

Through this framework of what is called the “Three P’s”, faith-based organizations can effectively explore how faith shapes how they engage in promoting breastfeeding through a holistic and integrated lens in their organizational lives.

Public Policy

Faith-based organizations of all mission areas and sizes should become familiar with the legal and regulatory frameworks at the local, state and federal levels that may apply to them with respect to breastfeeding and milk expression. These public policies fall into two general categories: providing employees with a private space to express breastmilk and ensuring those attending events generally open to the public are not hindered from breastfeeding.

Religious employers should familiarize themselves with Section 4207 of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, which amends the Fair Labor Standards Acts (FLSA). FLSA  requires employers to offer nursing mothers private spaces that are not restrooms to pump milk, and the Section 4207 provision indicates employers must make this space available for up to one year after the birth of an employee’s child. This provision also requires employers to provide enough break time (although it is not required to be paid) for an employee express milk for her child. Note that there is no general religious exemption to this provision. However, employers of less than 50 full-time employees for which this provision poses an undue hardship are not obligated to comply.  Faith-based organizations, even those exempt from FLSA and/or under 50 employees, may want to consider how to how to contribute to the good of society through their institutional policies and support their breastfeeding employees, by further familiarizing themselves with the specific details of this provision provided by the US Department of Labor.

Congregations and faith-based groups should also consider gaining a working knowledge of the legal frameworks, especially on a state level, that apply to women breastfeeding in public or in places where they would otherwise be permitted. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “All fifty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location.” It is important to note that few of these state laws explicitly address houses of worship or other religious settings. Senate Bill 3211, Illinois, for example, permits a woman to nurse her baby in any location where she is otherwise allowed to be, and “a mother who breastfeeds in a place of worship shall follow the appropriate norms within that place of worship.”

Over the past few years, several news articles have explored whether religious freedom extends to churches who want women to stop breastfeeding during service. Unfortunately, the existing coverage does not provide much substance or explanation as to why a religious freedom argument for an exemption to breastfeeding laws should or could be made. It is clear that many states do not provide any flat-out religious exemptions for congregations or other religious settings that may be hesitant about uncovered breastfeeding because of their sincerely held spiritual beliefs about modesty. Of course, it may be possible for a house of worship to bring a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) claim in a state with a RFRA law. Such a claim would  allege that allowing a woman to breastfeed poses a substantial burden to the congregation’s exercise of religion. However, legal success with such a claim may prove difficult, and such legal action would likely cause, at the very least, reputational problems and substantial media backlash for the church.

Organizational Practices

The institutional practices and culture of many faith-based organizations–which are inherently shaped by sacred beliefs about the mother/child bond–naturally lend themselves to support nursing. Social science has begun to document the vital role religious organizations play, at least on a correlative level, with promoting breastfeeding. One study’s analysis showed that mothers who regularly attended religious services were more likely to breastfeed their babies than women who never attended congregational services. These findings are in line with broader findings, the authors of this study note, that active participation in one’s religious faith is associated with better health outcomes.

All religious employers and services providers, especially those who serve vulnerable communities, should consider how their faith-motivated institutional practices create cultures friendly to breastfeeding. According to womenshealth.gov, black women are less likely to breastfeed their babies than women with other racial identities: “the reasons behind this difference are complex and are a result of history, social barriers to breastfeeding, and lack of support.” The authors of the study mentioned above also note, “Because religious institutions are well represented in the poorest neighborhoods, where there are few protective social institutions, understanding religious differences in breastfeeding may provide practitioners with opportunities to target programs in poorer communities.”

Faith-based organizations that serve and employ populations less likely to breastfeed can actually help remove cultural, institutional and religious barriers to breastfeeding. How? First, faith-based organizations should clearly articulate the sacred beliefs or religious texts that shape their motivations for supporting nursing mothers – whether employees or members of the community. Across different religious traditions, breastfeeding is seen as a sacred act in and of itself, and also symbolic for God’s provision to His people. A writer for Kveller, a popular Jewish parenting website, captures this notion: “The mythical power of breastfeeding is nowhere more evident than in biblical and rabbinic portrayals of God nursing the Jewish people…the rabbis compare the manna that the Israelites eat during their 40 years of wandering to the milk with which a mother feeds her child.” And according to the LLLI article Islamic and Cultural Practices and Breastfeeding, women are encouraged to breastfeed their children for two years by the teachings of the Quran: “Most Muslims see breastfeeding as the God (Allah) given right of the child.”

Second, faith-based organizations should consider what formal policies and practices they may want to adopt to both comply with legal requirements and to consistently live out their religious identity in the larger community. The Office on Women’s Health at HHS offers an abundance of resource on their site The Business Case for Breastfeeding. Among other resources, this site offers Steps to Creating a Breastfeeding Friendly Worksite: recommending at minimum workplaces provide employees with a private place to express milk that is not a bathroom, regular and flexible breaks during the workday, education and information for both male and female employees to properly prepare “for balancing the requirements for breastfeeding with their job responsibilities” and a culture of support from leadership. This site also provides a Toolkit on Building a Lactation Support Program, including a Sample Policy for Supporting Breastfeeding Employees, as well as model assessment forms and implementation timeline. These resources can be easily adopted and customized for the specific needs of faith-based employers, and religious language iterating the faith motivation for an implementation of a Lactation Support Program can easily be incorporated.

Public Positioning

The Business Case for Breastfeeding points out that providing support for workers to breastfeed on the job can give employers an edge. The resource explains that removing institutional barriers to expressing milk in the workplace “improves your overall company image and enhances your ability to recruit top-notch staff.” The guide also points out that employers with a supportive lactation program can garner “local, state, and national recognition and media attention, a positive boost to recruitment efforts and general goodwill in the community.”

When organizations provide supportive breastfeeding environments, employers have more positive reputations among their employees.These workplaces experience lower rates of absenteeism (breastfed babies are sick less), reduced healthcare costs and higher employee retention and satisfaction rates. Faith-based employers should take note of these benefits and approach breastfeeding as beneficial to the workplace, to employees and even to how they are perceived in the public square. By supporting breastfeeding mothers in the workplace, employers live out a faith commitment to serving the needs of the whole individual.

An Opportunity for Employers

Right now, a Google search of “breastfeeding” and “church” yields articles, mostly negative in tone, about the exceptional congregations that, intentionally or unintentionally, made women feel unwelcome because of their breastfeeding policies. Most of these congregations are simply trying to honor their faith commitments to modesty and to providing for the comfort of women who want a private space to feed. Unfortunately, the story often told in the media is that these congregations are bad actors, violating both the law and the tenets of their faith to support breastfeeding women. Groups like the Catholic Nursing Mothers League are gradually helping to change this perception and providing much-needed resources to local faith communities about how to consistently live out what their faith teaches in supporting nursing mothers.

Religious organizations can play a vital role in removing barriers to breastfeeding for their workers, congregants, services recipients and communities at large. The addition of a lactation support program, grounded in sacred beliefs, is another way to care for families and employees through workplaces practices. Even more than being helpful and fairly straightforward, these programs can help organizations generate a return on investment that is financial, relational and spiritual.

Chelsea Langston Bombino is the Director of the Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. Sacred Sector is a learning community for faith-based organizations and emerging leaders within the faith-based nonprofit sector to integrate and fully embody their sacred missions in every area of organizational life. If you are interested in learning more, please contact Sacred Sector Program Coordinator Virginia Creasy at virginia.creasy@cpjustice.org.