December 2017 – Behold, the Breastfeeding Madonna

By Karen Abts, BMSG Volunteer

May the depictions of Mother Mary breastfeeding the infant Jesus in early Christian art uplift us in our nursing journey this Christmas.

Christmas has taken on a deeper reality for me after having children. In celebrating Jesus’s birth, we are struck by His Humanity: this swaddled infant, born in the humblest of places, must have fed at the breasts of His Mother, Mary!

Yet I had never thought of Mary and Jesus as a breastfeeding dyad until I encountered this in religious art. As a new breastfeeding parent then, I felt comforted and affirmed by images of Mary nursing as it provided me with a relatable icon from antiquity and reminded me of the intentional, life-giving design of the female body.

Maria Lactans in Early Christian Art

Among various depictions of Mary throughout history, the motif of Maria lactans[i] (Latin for “Mary nursing”) featured prominently in the Middle Ages until the Renaissance (Gibson, 2012). Maria Lactans was first seen to mature in the East among the Coptic Christians while the Byzantines called their interpretation, Theotokos galaktotrophousa (Greek for “God-Bearer Milk-Giver”) (Miesel, 2009). In Russia, such iconography is called Mlekopitatelnitsa (“Milk-Feeding”), with Mary’s breast oddly depicted near her shoulder to avoid any trace of sensuality (David, 2016).

Figure 1: The oldest known image of Mary is a third-century fresco in the Priscilla catacombs in Rome (The Vatican, n.d.) showing her cradling the infant Jesus.


Figure 2: Among the Copts (native, non-Greek Christians of Egypt) were several early depictions of Maria lactans. seen today in the Coptic Museum in Cairo alongside other Egyptian goddesses giving breast: Isis to her son, Horus, and Renenutet to Neper.


Devotion to Our Lady of the Milk

As the West adopted the Byzantine icons, European artists sculpted three-dimensional figurines and Renaissance masters including Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt perfected paintings of Maria lactans up until the 18th century. Spanish missionaries brought their devotion to Nuestra Señora de La Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery) to the United States around the 1600s. It was once thought that “the virgin’s nursing breast, the lactating virgin, was the primary symbol of God’s love for humanity” (Miles & Lyon, 2008).

Figure 3: The last surviving Vierge ouvrante (opening Virgin) statuette, showing a Maria lactans that opens up to Maria gravidas (Mary pregnant) that gives birth to the Trinity.

Figure 4: Litta Madonna (Madonna and Child), ca. 1490s is traditionally attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) but some contend it was partially assisted by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (1466-1516).

Figure 5: Madonna delle Grazie, Filotesi dell Amatrice, 1508, shows Mary extinguishing purgatorial fires with breastmilk.

Figure 6: St. Bernard and The Virgin, Alonso Cano, c. A.D. 1650. This is one of several paintings featuring “The Miraculous Lactation of St. Bernard”. Legend goes that Bernard prayed before a statue of the Madonna, asking her, “Monstra te esse Matrem” (“Show yourself a mother”). The statue came to life and squirted breastmilk from the breast onto his lips.

Figure 7: Rest on the Flight to Egypt. Francisco de Zurbaran, ca 1659.


In Church and Around Us Today

Pope Francis invoked this ancient devotion earlier this year when he welcomed mothers at his sermon to feed their babies “just as Mary breastfed Jesus[ii] (Vatican Radio, 2017), reiterating his encouragement for breastfeeding mothers time and again. Today, there is a resurgence in this devotion among mothers, breastfeeding advocates and pro-life[iii]. In Singapore, the catholic Mount Alvernia Hospital features a sculpture of Mary breastfeeding.

Figure 8: A close-up of the statue of Our Lady on the exterior of the catholic Mount Alvernia Hospital in Singapore.

When you go into Church this season, I hope the image of Maria lactans stays positively with you and encourage you to feed your children in Church without fear. Merry Christmas!



Image References:

  1. Figure 1: Image downloaded on 9 December 2017 from the Gallery of Maria Lactans on Tucciarone, Tracy. Maria Lactans: Mary as Nursing Mother. [Online] Available (link to image)
  2. Figure 2: Image downloaded on 11 December 2017 from Link to image:
  3. Figure 3: Download from
  4. Figure 4: Image downloaded on 12 December 2017 from
  5. Figure 5: Image downloaded on 11 December 2017 from
  6. Figure 6: Image downloaded on 11 December 2017 from the Fisheaters Gallery of Maria Lactans. Link to image:
  7. Figure 7: Image downloaded on 11 December 2017 from the Fisheaters Gallery of Maria Lactans. Link to image:
  8. Figure 8: Image downloaded on 6 December 2017 from

Works Cited

Miesel, S. (2009, October 3). Mothering God. Retrieved November 22, 2017, from Crisis Magazine:

Gibson, D. (2012, December 11). Jesus was not a bottle baby. What happened to Maria Lactans? Retrieved November 22, 2017, from Commonweal Magazine:

Miles, M., & Lyon, V. (2008). A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750. Berkeley: University of California Press.

The Vatican. (n.d.). The Christian Catacombs: The catacombs and the Mother of God. Retrieved from The Holy See:

Vatican Radio. (2017, January 8). Pope Francis baptises 28 in the Sistine Chapel. Vatican.

David. (2016, June 23). The Nursing Goddess: From Isis to Mary. Retrieved from Icons and Their Interpretation:

[i] A comprehensive chronological Gallery of Maria Lactans can be found at Tucciarone, Tracy. Maria Lactans: Mary as Nursing Mother. [Online] Available

[ii] Pope Francis baptises 28 in the Sistine Chapel, 8 January 2017, Vatican Radio

[iii] In the Philippines, for instance, the devotion to Our Lady of La Leche was promoted since 2000 with permission from the late Manila Archibishop Jaime Cardinal Sin. Source:

Nov 2017 – Maternal Health Awareness Talk

By Hafizah Rafie & Nabila Hanim, BMSG Counsellors

On 18 November 2017, BMSG was invited to attend a Maternal Health Awareness talk organised by Clarity Singapore, a charity that serves and assists persons with mental health issues. The talk comprised of two parts: an insightful sharing by Ms Ong Li Lian from KKH Women’s Mental Wellness Centre on how PND develops in mothers and its contributing factors. The second part was a panel sharing by five mothers who had gone through some form of postnatal depression (PND) and had overcome their conditions.

Ms Ong Li Lian introducing the causes and symptoms of PND, and what the community can do to help mothers. [Photo Credits: Clarity Singapore]

Hearing From the Expert

As breastfeeding counsellors, we come across mothers everyday in our work. From our hotline to our Facebook group, and even in our own personal capacities, we chance upon mothers all the time and knowing the symptoms and risk factors for PND was crucial for us to help mothers better.

According to Ms Ong, there are various contributing factors to mothers developing PND. It is important that a woman receives support right from the start of pregnancy as PND can be triggered by the stress that arises during pregnancy. With changing hormones and physical challenges faced by a pregnant mother, coupled with anxiety of what’s to come, it is important to ensure that pregnant mothers receive care and support from immediate family members and the community. This is even more so if mothers are experiencing a high-risk pregnancy.

Our counsellors who attended the talk. From left: Khatim, Elaine, Nabila, Liyana & Hafizah

The difference between a mother’s expectations of having a baby and the reality of the challenges that she has to face especially in the early days of her baby’s life is a major contributing factor to mothers developing PND. We have been cultured by advertisements and popular culture that having a baby and giving birth are rosy events which may not require much effort. On the contrary, life as a new mother, as well as having to face societal expectations and inner struggles, can even weaken the toughest woman. Apart from enduring physical recovery after giving birth, the new mother also has to learn to care for and breastfeed the baby. The uncertainty of raising a newborn and coupled with facing the physical stress of being sleep-deprived, especially if mothers have no help, can rattle them and cause them to fall into a spiral of negativity. According to Ms Ong, some mothers feel a lack of control over their lives and this is exacerbated when she feels lonely due to lack of social time. Some parents also face a strain in the marriage especially when husbands are unsure as to how to help their wives feel better about themselves.

Contributing factors that may lead a mum to fall into PND.

Trapped in a Cycle of Faulty Thinking and Anxiety

According to Ms Ong, PND happens when a mother feels that things will not get any better over time. She will feel overwhelmed, anxious and unsure with the new challenges and only notice the negative situations. She will doubt and tell herself “I am not good enough”. Mothers with PND may feel that they are incapable as a mother and such faulty thinking spins her into a slippery slope of the Negative Thinking Spiral, where she falls deeper and deeper in creating a negative perception of herself. Some mothers with PND also get trapped into The Worry Loop, where she keeps on focusing on what could go wrong with her baby and gets entrenched in constant anxiety and feel tensed all the time.

The Worry Cycle, where mothers get tangled into an endless abyss of anxiety.


The Negative Feeling Spiral – where mothers constantly feel inadequate or that she has failed as a mother.

For mothers who have already begun to feel this way even during pregnancy, it is crucial to seek help as this is definitely not healthy for the baby in utero due to the presence of the stress hormone, cortisol, which can negatively affect the baby during and after the pregnancy.

Other Contributing Factors to PND

The panel of mothers who shared their stories on how they struggled and overcome PND. [Photo credits: Clarity Singapore]

PND can affect anyone regardless of socioeconomic status. Some mothers are plagued not just by the challenges of raising a baby, but also by their circumstances. One of the mothers in the panel shared about how crippled she felt when her husband had been retrenched. This led her to being constantly worried about the family’s financial situation. One day, after failing to receive a deal for her own business venture, she almost swerved her car into an accident. Thankfully, she got a grip of herself and drove instead to KKH to seek help from the Mental Wellness Service. 

Some of the other mothers also talked about additional contributing factors, such as the stress caused by unsolicited advice, feeling trapped with family members who are insensitive to the emotional needs of a new mother, or struggling with loneliness or past history of depression as a new mother. These mothers also shared that taking that first step to seek professional help was a major step in improving their conditions. They also emphasised that there is nothing embarrassing about wanting to seek help as this is a gift for themselves and their families.

Helping Mothers with PND

As family members and friends, Ms Ong emphasised on the need to always be on the lookout for symptoms in new mothers. Some mothers may show that they are capable of managing their new role as a mother but are actually not able to express what exactly is burdening them. Some mothers may also not be able to embrace that feeling of helplessness and lack of control over their lives. Other mothers, despite having help, may still feel that they lack purpose in their lives as they get sucked into the mundane routine of caring for a baby.

As spouses, family and friends, it is important to offer help, a listening ear and not to dismiss a mother’s feelings. Some mothers may also face a late onset of PND months after they have given birth. It is important to continue looking out for the welfare of mothers constantly.

For some mums, attention and care may not be sufficient. This is when mothers should be encouraged to seek professional help. If you suspect that you or a friend/family member is struggling with some form of PND, you can seek help from the following services: