Which Religious Group Breastfeeds More? Protestants or Catholics?

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Jonathan Y. Bernard, PhD

Inserm UMRS 1153 – Centre for research in Epidemiology and Biostatistics Sorbonne Paris Cité (CRESS)
Team ORCHAD: early Origin of the Child Health And Development
Hôpital Paul Brousse

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: Despite the World Health Organization’s recommendations promoting breast feeding, wide variations in breast feeding initiation rates are observed among Western countries: some reach >95%, while others remain <80%. Many individual-level determinants of breast feeding are known, including maternal age, education, ethnicity, smoking and employment status. Less is known regarding cultural determinants, such as religion, which could be underlying and explain rate differences between and within countries.

We aimed at comparing countries’ breast feeding rates with the proportions of Catholics and Protestants. We thus carried out an ecological study by collating publicly available online data for 135 countries. We additionally gathered within-country data for 5 Western nations: France, Ireland, the UK, Canada and the USA.

We found that, in Western countries, the proportion of Catholics was negatively correlated with the rate of breast feeding. This was also observed within countries in France, Ireland, the UK and Canada. In the USA, where breast feeding rates vary hugely between states, race was an important confounder. Interestingly, we also found the correlation in non-Hispanic whites. All our findings hold even when we account for wealth indicators, such as gross domestic product per capita.

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: Our study shows that women living in a Western country or region where Catholicism has historically dominated are less likely to breast feed their offspring. It seems that the Western countries with a higher Protestant background have had greater success with their breast feeding promotion policies.

However, our study has an ecological design and it does not permit to conclude that Catholic women are less likely to breast feed. At this stage, we identify religion as a determinant at the population level only. It may help policymakers target at-risk populations and adapt their breast feeding promotional efforts according to this sociocultural factor.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response:Epidemiological studies at the individual level and in various contexts are needed to confirm or refute our findings. Ecological studies could also be conducted at finer scales, if data are available. Germany could be a relevant testing ground to replicate our analysis.

Sociocultural and anthropological studies are necessary to understand potential mechanisms mediating religious and cultural values and customs to breast feeding practice. Indeed, many may explain this link, even in individuals not adhering to any religion, or adhering to one without practicing it. Religious cultures are deep-rooted factors that have been shaping our cultural values and customs over generations.

My colleague Emmanuel Cohen, anthropologist and co-author of this study, is very interested in these matters.

MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: I think health sciences and social sciences should interact more. They have much to say to each other. The topic of breast feeding is a shining example. To breast feed or not is not a rational decision based uniquely on the knowledge about its health benefits for the infant and the mother. Paramedical, emotional, practical, economic and legal support must be provided to women who wish to breast feed, and the choice not to breast feed should be truly respected.

MedicalResearch.com: Thank you for your contribution to the MedicalResearch.com community.


Jonathan Y Bernard, Emmanuel Cohen, Michael S Kramer

Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.

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