In LDS homes, having children carries particular significance as we believe we are partnering with Heavenly Parents in the creation of life. This is one of the most sacred beliefs in Mormonism. However, the church culture sometimes deprioritizes the needs of mothers and their young infants.
This is particularly true when it comes to breastfeeding.
During discussions about the proper place of breastfeeding within the church, concerns are often raised about children, particularly boys and young men, being exposed to a naked breast. Other fears center around the potential discomfort some men (particularly porn addicts) may experience. Additional worries are expressed from time to time, but what each shares in common is a noticeable lack of concern for the welfare of either the mother or her baby.
One common suggestion is that women use the mothers’ rooms in their ward houses. Even if every ward had a comfortable, well-equipped and maintained room that was large enough for all the nursing mothers in the building, this suggestion still carries risk. Although these rooms can be safe and comfortable spaces for some new moms, they can also be literal isolation chambers. By design, they separate a woman from the rest of the ward community as well as her family (other children).
Calls for compassion and consideration for those who might be uncomfortable seeing breastfeeding are not without merit. Bearing one another’s burdens is part of our baptismal covenants.
However, acting compassionately does not mean that we accept harmful cultural attitudes that put lives and health at risk.
While having a new baby can be an exciting time in a family, many parts of regular life with an infant – lack of sleep, increased emotional demand, and hormonal changes – are risk factors for postpartum mood disorders (PPMDs). One of the single biggest risks for postpartum depression is social isolation.
This danger is particularly high in American culture, which doesn’t have a strong social practice of postpartum care. Most American women get no formal postpartum care between the time they’re discharged from the hospital and their six week postpartum visit. After that, there is no standard for medical care even though recovery lasts six months or more.
Young families are largely left on their own to adjust while managing all the regular demands of life. Some get non-medical support from their own extended families or friends, which can be incredibly valuable.
Since Mormonism is not just a shared faith, but is often our primary social circle, it frequently falls upon wards to provide support — or not — for postpartum families. Given that LDS families tend to have more children on average, many wards can have several babies born each year, leading to care fatigue. And even before fatigue sets in, this care varies wildly, with some families receiving several weeks’ worth of meals and other care and other families receiving nothing.
Within that context, the days or weeks a mom is away from church while she recovers and her newborn grows can be quite lonely and isolating, especially in a ward that provides little postpartum support. The social interaction that happens in between meetings, during Sunday school and relief society classes, and at ward activities can be a crucial breath of air to a new mom. They can literally be lifesaving.
Asking a breastfeeding mother to sacrifice these opportunities for connection is not just uncompassionate, it is dangerous. Estimates show that close to 50% of women experience mild postpartum depression (baby blues), and ten to thirty percent of women experience more severe forms of PPMDs. Since these numbers are often self-reported and there is a limited window for diagnosis, many cases of PPMDs go undiagnosed.
We must acknowledge the mental health risk factors for mothers in our wards.
While we believe that mothers rooms should be available to all women who want them, the expectation that women should exclusively breastfeed in mothers rooms creates social isolation, either by literally excluding a woman from full participation in her ward or by putting her at odds with the social standards for proper behavior.
The critical issue of maternal mental health is as worthy of our compassion as any other concern. Mothers need to be embraced and included in their ward communities even, or perhaps especially, while breastfeeding their babies.