On Sunday, Pope Francis baptized 28 children at a ceremony in the famed Sistine Chapel and used the opportunity to invite mothers to breastfeed, if they needed. It wasn't the first time Pope Francis has spoken out publicly about breastfeeding. Pope Francis encouraged moms to breastfeed in the Sistine Chapel "without fear," and the message offers powerful support for women and mothers all over the world who still face stigma while trying to feed their hungry babies.
“The ceremony is a little long, someone’s crying because he’s hungry. That’s the way it is,” Pope Francis said during the annual ceremony commemorating Jesus' baptism, according to The Guardian. “You mothers, go ahead and breastfeed, without fear. Just like the Virgin Mary nursed Jesus."
Sunday's comments were an echo of similar statements he's made during the same ceremony in years past. In 2015, according to U.S. Catholic News Service, Pope Francis asked the parents gathered to have their babies baptized to remember poor mothers all over the world who "are not able to give their children food to eat."
He made similar remarks in a December 2013 interview with La Stampa, according to TIME, where he said mothers shouldn't be embarrassed about public breastfeeding, even in front of the Pope.
There was a young mother behind one of the barriers with a baby that was just a few months old. The child was crying its eyes out as I came past. The mother was caressing it. I said to her: Madam, I think the child’s hungry. 'Yes, it’s probably time…' she replied. 'Please give it something to eat!' I said. She was shy and didn’t want to breast-feed in public, while the Pope was passing. I wish to say the same to humanity: Give people something to eat!
This is a particularly important message to women who live in poverty. Malnutrition is the cause of death for about half of all infants, according to the World Health Organization. In addition to lowering the rates of chronic diseases for infants, the WHO added, encouraging women to breastfeed has health benefits for mothers too, like aiding in shedding pregnancy weight. Global leaders throwing their influence behind normalizing breastfeeding is a big step toward encouraging more of the practice.
Whether women who breastfeed in public are shamed or sexualized, there's still far too much stigma attached to the simple practice of a mother using her body as intended to feed her baby, even from other women. It's important for leaders like Pope Francis to speak up and help eliminate that shame and judgement. Maybe someday soon mothers will be treated with the same respect at their jobs, while shopping, and anywhere else in public they happen to find themselves with a hungry baby who needs to be fed.