© Blog First Steps, IDB’s Social Protection and Health Division

pope francis

Jorge Mario Bergoglio is 77 years old. He was born in Flores, a typically middle-class neighborhood of Buenos Aires, and is a fan of San Lorenzo, my favorite soccer team (after Boca, that is!). On March 13 [link in Spanish], he celebrated his first anniversary in an office that has made him one of the most famous men in the world, but maybe you know him better as Pope Francis. Why has this pope become so famous? 

The answer can likely be attributed to several reasons, among them his attitudes of genuine simplicity and humility, made apparent, for example, by his decision to reside in the Vatican guesthouse instead of the residence used by previous popes since 1903, or perhaps it’s because Time magazine selected him as its Person of the Year in 2013. And now we can add a new reason to his long list of virtues: Pope Francis is breastfeeding’s new ally.

Earlier this year, while several children were being baptized at the Sistine Chapel, he told a group of mothers whose babies were obviously crying from hunger, “If they are hungry, mothers, feed them—and do not think twice about it—because they are the most important people here.” Shortly thereafter, Chessa Lutter published an excellent article on The Lancet Global Health Blog, describing the Pope as “breastfeeding’s new ally.”

We’ve talked a lot about the benefits of breastfeeding on this blog, so I’m not going to rehash the topic. But one of the things that most inspired me about this story was the plain, simple and clear way of encouraging mothers to breastfeed in public. If we had more of these “social communicators,” we wouldn’t need to spend so much money on advertising campaigns to promote breastfeeding, which, in many cases, have not been successful. Hopefully, many other political, social and cultural leaders will follow the Pope’s example. International organizations must also learn to give clear, direct messages so that they make a tangible impact.

My other observation is that this pope is clearly influenced by his Argentine roots. If you walk around Buenos Aires, regardless of the neighborhood, it’s not uncommon to see women breastfeeding their children of up to 2 years old or more, at any place and any time, including on the bus, in a public park or square, in a taxi, at a bar and even at the movies (which often catches tourists off-guard).   

Both in Latin America and English-speaking countries, there are still some places that prohibit breastfeeding in public! Why is a singer on TV showing tons of cleavage more socially acceptable than a woman breastfeeding in a square? When I’ve asked friends and colleagues this question, the answers I got were a mixture of (false?) puritanism and embarrassment. When a religious leader sends a positive message about the issue, it rather discredits the puritanical argument, but there’s still the idea that breastfeeding is shameful or embarrassing. But what are we ashamed of? That’s where the Pope says “do not think twice,” because feeding your child is more important than the couple of inches of breast that your pewmate at the Sistine Chapel might see.

What do you think? Drop us a line on Twitter or in the comments section below.

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