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Recognizing the nutritional and immunologic benefits of breastfeeding to infants and the health benefits of lactation to mothers, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and The Royal Society co-sponsored a Working Group that met in Vatican City 11-13 May 1995. The meeting brought together a multidisciplinary group of scientists engaged in social and biological research and in the clinical study of lactation. The purpose of the meeting was to create a forum for the presentation of accumulated research and to conduct a high-level scientific discussion of its implications. The Food and Nutrition Bulletin has provided the opportunity to publish the papers and the discussions, thereby making them available to a wider audience. We are profoundly grateful to the publishers for their cooperation, assistance, and patience in preparing the manuscripts.

We are grateful to the participants for their studies and their work in preparing their presentations. The papers and discussions address available scientific data in a competent and objective fashion. They do not represent the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church or the moral and pastoral application of that teaching. Nor do they represent the official positions of The Royal Society or the policies of the United Kingdom. The workshop's aim was a comprehensive overview that met the highest scientific standards. We are confident it will be of great value to scholars, clinicians, and all others who work daily to enrich the lives of mothers and infants.

Dr. Ann McLaren
The Royal Society

Msgr. Renato Dardozzi
Pontifical Academy of Sciences



Solemn Papal Audience

On the morning of 12 May 1995, His Holiness John Paul 11 granted a Solemn Audience in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican to the participants the Working Group on "Breastfeeding: Science and Society."

The group, introduced by His Excellency Msgr. James T. McHugh, Bishop of Camden, New Jersey, USA, was paternally received by the Holy Father, who at the end of the Audience greeted all the participants.

The Holy Father pronounced the following discourse:

Your Eminences,
Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

  1. As always, it is a great pleasure to meet the distinguished participants in the study sessions organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and I thank Bishop James McHugh for his kind words of introduction. Today I am especially happy to extend my appreciation to The Royal Society, which has cosponsored this significant meeting.

True to its purpose and statutes, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences addresses itself to a wide range of scientific, social, and ethical issues which have a bearing on the Church's service to the human family, a service which springs from the fundamental Gospel commandment of love. The Academy plays a resourceful role in helping the Church, in particular the Holy See, to fulfil this task of service with the benefit of the most expert scientific knowledge and insights. Your studies and enquiries contribute to the Church's supreme effort to journey hand in hand with humanity on its path through temporal realities towards man's great and inexorable transcendent destiny.

  1. On this occasion you have been invited to share your expertise on the specific subject of "Breastfeeding: Science and Society," as a part of the overall study which the Academy has been pursuing since 1990 on Population and Resources. As scientists you direct your enquiry towards a better understanding of the advantages of breastfeeding for the infant and for the mother. As your Working Group can confirm, in normal circumstances these include two major benefits to the child: protection against disease and proper nourishment. Moreover, in addition to these immunological and nutritional effects, this natural way of feeding can create a bond of love and security between mother and child, and enable the child to assert its presence as a person through interaction with the mother.

All of this is obviously a matter of immediate concern to countless women and children, and something which clearly has general importance for every society, rich or poor. One hopes that your studies will serve to heighten public awareness of how much this natural activity benefits the child and helps to create the closeness and maternal bonding so necessary for healthy child development. So human and natural is this bond that the Psalms use the image of the infant at its mother's breast as a picture of God's care for man [1]. So vital is this interaction between mother and child that my predecessor Pope Pius XII urged Catholic mothers, if at all possible, to nourish their children themselves [2]. From various perspectives, therefore, the theme is of interest to the Church, called as she is to concern herself with the sanctity of life and of the family.

  1. Worldwide surveys indicate that two-thirds of mothers still breastfeed, at least to some extent. But statistics also show that there has been a fall in the number of women who nourish their infants in this way, not only in developed countries where the practice almost has to be reinstituted, but also increasingly in developing countries. This decline is traced to a combination of social factors such as urbanization and the increasing demands placed on women, to health-care policies and practices, and to marketing strategies for alternative forms of nourishment.

Yet the overwhelming body of research is in favour of natural feeding rather than its substitutes.

Responsible international agencies are calling on governments to ensure that women are enabled to breastfeed their children for four to six months from birth and to continue this practice, supplemented by other appropriate foods, up to the second year of life or beyond [3]. Your meeting therefore intends to illustrate the scientific bases for encouraging social policies and employment conditions which allow mothers to do this.

In practical terms, what we are saying is that mothers need time, information, and support. So much is expected of women in many societies that time to devote to breastfeeding and early care is not always available. Unlike other modes of feeding, no one can substitute for the mother in this natural activity. Likewise, women have a right to be informed truthfully about the advantages of this practice, as also about the difficulties involved in some eases. Health-care professionals too should be encouraged and properly trained to help women in these matters.

  1. In the recent Encyclical Evangelium vitae I wrote that "A family policy must be the basis and driving force of all social policies ... It is also necessary to rethink labour, urban, residential, and social service policies so as to harmonize working schedules with time available for the family, so that it becomes effectively possible to take care of children and the elderly" [4].

Is this a vague utopia, or is it the obligatory path to the genuine well-being of society? Even this brief reflection on the very individual and private act of a mother feeding her infant can lead us to a deep and far-ranging critical rethinking of certain social and economic presuppositions, the negative human and moral consequences of which are becoming more and more difficult to ignore. Certainly, a radical reexamination of many aspects of prevailing socio-economic patterns of work, economic competitiveness, and lack of attention to the needs of the family is urgently necessary.

  1. I am therefore very grateful to all of you for offering your time and co-operation to this meeting co-sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and The Royal Society. I look forward to the synthesis and report of your findings so that this information may be widely circulated to our Church agencies and interested institutions throughout the world. I pray for the success of your research and for your own personal well-being. May God's blessings of strength, joy, and peace be with each one of you and the members of your families.


1. Psalms 22:9. The Jerusalem Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1966.

2. Pius XII. Allocution to mothers, October 6, 1941. In: Monks of Solesmes, ed. The woman in the modern world. Boston, Mass, USA: The Daughters of St. Paul, 1959.

3. UNICEF. Children and development in the 1990s. A UNICEF sourcebook. New York: UNICEF, 1990.

4. John Paul II. Evangelium vitae. In: Origins 24(42), 6 April 1995. Washington, DC: Catholic News Service, 1995.


Address to the Holy Father

At the Solemn Audience granted to the Working Group participants on 12 May 1995, His Excellency Msgr. James T. McHugh, Bishop of Camden, NJ, USA, delivered the following address:

Most Holy Father,

I am pleased to present to you the participants in the Working Group on "Breastfeeding: Science and Society." The meeting of this Working Group is co-sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and The Royal Society of London. The persons taking part in this meeting are physicians and scientists who are engaged in scientific research and who have accumulated much important data on the advantages of breastfeeding for both mother and child.

There is considerable evidence that breastfeeding provides proper nutrition for children and also protects the child against life-threatening infections in the earliest years of life. The mother also benefits by knowing that she is providing good nourishment and research shows that breastfeeding is associated with a reduction in the risk of breast cancer. The return of ovulation is inhibited in the fully breastfeeding woman, at least during the first six months after birth, thereby providing important health benefits to the family because of improved birth spacing.

We are now coming to a better understanding of the nutritional components of human milk and of the receptivity and response on the part of the child. The efforts of our participants are directed towards enabling women to initiate and sustain breastfeeding and enabling infants to benefit fully. The research papers and the discussions within our Working Group are a valuable contribution.

Unfortunately there are many factors that discourage or inhibit women from this important practice. In developed countries the rapid pace of life and time demands on women are obstacles. Absence of stable family life and familial support affects many women. Employment patterns, the work environment, and the absence of sufficient maternal leave time create difficulties.

In developing countries where breastfeeding has been a more common practice, urbanization, work outside the home, and other aspects of modernization tend to diminish the practice of breastfeeding. It is important to protect and strengthen the cultural support for breastfeeding practices within the family.

Our Working Group has also recognized that although breastfeeding primarily involves mother and child, there is also an important role for fathers. Every element of child care is a mutual responsibility and commitment of both parents. The father should be particularly sensitive to the physical demands placed on the mother and assist her in obtaining proper nutrition and rest. The father should give approval and encouragement to help the mother sustain the practice. Every woman should be supported in every aspect of her motherhood, by her family and by society.

Our Working Group is pleased with this opportunity to present and review the important research data. We are grateful to be able to meet with you, Holy Father, and we ask your blessing and your prayers.

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