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.