A Radical Ruling: Breastfeeding and Fasting on Yom Kippur

Also see: Resources on Fasting During Pregnancy

Our rabbi made an amazing statement this past Shabbat: Pregnant women and nursing mothers whose babies are solely dependent on their mothers’ milk (including babies who take a small amount of solids, generally until 8 or 9 months) must not fast on Yom Kippur. Nursing mothers (and presumably pregnant women; I didn’t hear that part of the speech), , should eat and drink in shiurim starting Yom Kippur morning, and not wait until they have symptoms or see signs of distress in the baby. He said that he based his opinion on a ruling by the Hazon Ish.

Yoatzot.org’s article on breastfeeding and Yom Kippur contains an explanation of shiurim, and a more mainstream opinion about fasting.

I have always fasted during pregnancy and breastfeeding with no complications. Once on the 9th of Av I was in late pregnancy and the rabbi said to eat and drink with shiurim. The rabbi on Shabbat made the point that while drinking in shiurim, a woman should maximize calories and nutrition by choosing a drink like orange juice over water.

Most nursing mothers make more than enough milk, so their babies do well even if the fast causes a drop in supply. The babies usually reverse this by nursing extra the night and day following the fast. However, in my years counseling nursing mothers I have come across a few babies and mothers who suffered terribly by the end of the fast. I just heard a typical example: A mother was home with a toddler and baby. The baby didn’t stop crying, and the mother was in no shape to shlep the kids to shul and ask a rabbi about breaking the fast. Sometimes a mother knows her supply is low or borderline, or she fasts badly in general, so she asks a question in advance about how to handle it. But often, there is no way to predict when the situation will get out of hand. Our rabbi’s approach is one way to avoid this scenario.

Nursing mothers and their babies are intricately connected. If the mother isn’t producing enough milk for her baby, the mother may be severely dehydrated. Even if the baby will take other food at this point, the mother may need to break her fast for her own health.

The baby is getting enough milk if his diaper output is more or less normal.

Mothers with twins, insufficient milk supply, or who are exclusively pumping are more likely to notice a difference in supply during a fast.

Before 9 Av, a rabbi wrote in one of the “parsha sheets” distributed in synagogues each Friday that a nursing mother should alternate formula supplements with nursing throughout the day. This is bad advice for several reasons: Introducing formula early can trigger allergies and lower supply. Skipping feedings can cause engorgement, leading in turn to a plugged duct and subsequent infection. Skipping feedings can also affect breastfeeding infertility.

When a mother’s breast is full and her baby is crying, she wants and needs to nurse her baby. A fast day is not the time to begin weaning. Non-emergency weaning should always be gradual, relaxed and accompanied by lots of cuddling and attention.

I don’t believe that Judaism is about replacing a warm breast with a bottle in order to follow the strictest letter of the law. As “anonymous mom” put it on an Orthonomics comment thread about women who leave their children to go to shul: “Our worship is caring for and educating our precious children.” Fasting is a religious obligation, but so is nurturing our children.

An alternative for nursing mothers who do plan to fast entirely is to begin building up milk supply by pumping once or twice a day a few days in advance, so that by the time Yom Kippur comes around the body will be making extra milk and any drop in supply won’t be felt. They will also have breastmilk on hand if required. Keep in mind, though, that supplements of any kind, including pumped milk, lower supply, so avoid it unless your baby really needs it.

Whether nursing mothers eat in shiurim or fast completely, they need to rest as much as possible. Mothers of older babies produce more milk, and they have to run after active babies, so fasting can be harder for them even if their babies do eat some solids. (Remember that babies who nurse on cue continue to get most of their calories from mothers’ milk until 12 months or so.) Preparing kids’ food in advance and planning activities to occupy them can make a huge difference. If you are lucky, you can find a mother’s helper to play with the kids for a while. And many rabbis rule that if the woman can’t fast without help for the kids, the husband should stay home from shul.

Above all, have a plan in case things are not going well.

Wishing you all a Gmar chatimah tovah. May you be sealed in the Book of Life for the coming year.

Rabbi Elgazi’s Ruling (Yom Kippur 2012)

Tips on Breastfeeding and Fasting on Yom Kippur

Fasting during Pregnancy

Fasting When 9 Av Is Postponed (2016)

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Comments

  1. And for the grannies, I recently heard that a reliable Orthodox rabbi said that people over 50 should trust their feelings during a fast. If they feel something’s wrong, they must drink or even eat.
    Tzom Kal l’kulam!
    Gmar chatima tova

  2. mama o'matrices says:

    I’d been told this before – I fast badly and dehydrate easily, so I asked an apologetic question of a rav when I was pregnant. He was shocked that I’d even consider fasting while pregnant, or nursing.

  3. Wow! I’m starting my 7th month (nearly 28 weeks) and although I fast very well, I’m becoming very paranoid. I’m thinking of asking our LOR his opinion. 9th of Av was fine for me, but to be with two kids all day–that could tip things a bit.

  4. Thanks for you tips.
    I fasted last year by laying in bed the entire time at around 16 weeks of pregnancy (that was the only way to keep morning sickness at bay without eating or drinking anything).
    My baby is 6 months now.
    I managed tisha b’av though I think my supply took a hit after that, but there were other factors besides the fasting.
    Since I survived that, I think I’ll get through Yom Kippur. I’ve been pumping extra to build up a little extra for when I run out during the day.

  5. When i was nursing, i was told to start with drinking shiurim from the evening already and not to wait till i felt badly or had milk issues. (Granted I’ve never been a good faster in general – which is why i asked but he said it was completely irrelevant, he’d have told me the same advice no matter what.). And I was told that I could certainly eat shiurim as well if I was feeling weak.
    In fact, the rav said to get myself a nice case of black beer – his wife’s drink of choice while nursing. He certainly wasn’t suggesting water only.
    My oldest was only 2 months on yom kippur but my 2nd son was 5.5 months and i was told the same exact thing. And the same for 9th of Av. And to completely skip minor fasts. No suggestions of bottles thankfully.
    And with #2, my husband made a point of coming home right after musaf kedusha to take over and several times during the rest of davening to check on us to make sure i didn’t need help with the kids. (He didn’t ask any psak – said this was obviously the right thing to do)
    My other suggestion which I did with 18month old and a 4yr old when I was under the weather for Yom Kippur – this is the time to use a mohter’s helper! I got the 9yr old yongest daughter of someone down the block to come over and entertain my kids for much of the day – would have been a great idea the year before when I was nursing the baby exclusively but I hadn’t thought of it.
    shoshana

  6. mominisrael says:

    Thank you all for sharing your stories! Please come back on Sunday and let us know how it went.

  7. Wish i had read this post a few days ago. I have a five month old and I pumped so that he could have bottles.
    I nursed less than usuall so that I could fast and now I have mastitis.
    The fast was miserable and now I am still suffering.

    • Just goes to show that prioritising religion over health doesn’t make sense. Your body needs much more fluids when breastfeeding or in pregnancy, so fasting just for the sake of traditional cultural practices is getting the balance wrong.

  8. I’ve had some tough pregnant/nursing Yom Kippurs. My rabbi said that I should do my utmost to fast, even if it meant my husband stayed home from shul to watch the kids, so that I could lie in bed the whole time.
    Since I don’t live near family, my husband was the only one who could help me (my kids don’t take kindly to unknown babysitters).
    Probably most nursing women could manage the fast if they stay in bed the whole time. But I don’t think all rabbis are as strong about fasting on YK as mine. I heard that Israeli rabbis are more lenient about it in general.
    Answer to this question is always: Ask your rabbi.

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