The Truth about Nursing in the Ezrat Nashim

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Which of the following situations is disturbing, distracting, or inappropriate in shul?

  • Cracking open a bag of Bamba for a toddler, who proceeds to distribute the contents around the shul Hansel and Gretel style.
  • Shoving chairs right and left while pushing a monster stroller through the aisle.
  • Blocking the shul entrance with an unattended stroller.
  • Chatting loudly.
  • Repeatedly shushing noisy and restless preschoolers.
  • Allowing preschoolers to run back and forth among their friends.
  • Remaining with a crying baby in shul, even during the shofar blowing (the central observance of Rosh Hashanah).
  • Standing quietly in place, noting that the baby is getting restless, and discreetly nursing him in a sling before he makes a sound.

Each of these occurred in my ezrat nashim (synagogue women’s section) this Rosh Hashanah. (Except for the last one, perhaps: I have no way of knowing for sure.) Why should the nursing mother, who is not bothering anybody, be singled out and asked to leave?

Even if your shul has more decorum than mine, people who are quietly tending to their own needs and those of their children should not be harassed. Nursing may make some people uncomfortable, but that doesn’t give them a right to interfere. People are uncomfortable with or distracted by many things that happen in shul: people blowing their noses, Tourette’s syndrome in which people uncontrollably blurt things out, bathroom exits, passing gas, wheelchairs. People could theoretically argue that attendees of a different skin color distract them from their prayers. So I hope we can agree that “it makes some people uncomfortable” is not a reason to disallow nursing in shul.

Before telling mothers to leave their seats in order to nurse, we ought to think about the negative messages we are conveying.

  1. Negative message: Breastfeeding is exceptional and unusual. Truth: Breastfeeding is natural and normal and mothers can do it as part of their normal activities.
  2. Negative message: In order to breastfeed your baby, you must separate yourself from the community. To be part of the shul, you must bottlefeed, get a babysitter, or both. Truth: Mother and baby togetherness is important for a baby’s physical, cognitive, and emotional development, and should be encouraged.
  3. Negative message: Breastfeeding is inherently “untzniusdik” (immodest, but that translation doesn’t give the full connotation). Truth: A nursing mother is a beautiful sight and need not be hidden away until her baby weans. If a woman does prefer to nurse in another room, she should have the option.
  4. Negative message: Breastfeeding is unholy, and incompatible with prayer. Truth: Women may pray while nursing, and Judaism encourages nursing until age two and even up to 4 or 5 years. Some even consider nursing for two years to be a religious obligation.
  5. Negative message: Young mothers and babies are not welcome in our our synagogue, and we will place roadblocks in their attempts to participate. Truth: Our community encourages large families, and ought to support mothers even if their choices about whether to nurse and when to attend shul differ from our own.

What about toddlers? Mothers of toddlers may long to be in shul as much as mothers of young babies. Toddlers continue to crave their mothers’ presence, even if the mothers are able to find a babysitting arrangement. The difference lies in the needs of the toddler. Young babies are equally happy at home or in shul, as long as their mother is near. Older babies and toddlers need to move around. Most shul environments don’t suit them; they will disturb others and hear too many “nos.” Their mothers may not benefit either.

I won’t tie myself down to specific ages, nor define discreet nursing. Mothers have a hard enough time without these kinds of rules. Some young babies will make everyone in shul miserable, while some toddlers can sit happily for a long time observing or playing quietly. There will always be people, mothers and others, who show bad judgment by nursing while fully exposed or not removing a noisy baby promptly. That doesn’t mean we need to issue draconian guidelines forbidding nursing or the presence of babies.

My shul does at least one thing right: they arrange the high holiday seating according to the age of each family’s youngest child. Mothers with babies are closest to the entrances (front and back, with some room for strollers). They are surrounded by other mothers who won’t object if their babies peep or nurse, and they can make a quick exit if necessary. Single women and those with older daughters sit nearest the mechitzah (central partition separating men and women) and farthest from the doors.

This is a follow-up to the post and comments: Nursing in the Negev, or Nursing in the Toilet.

Rabbi Aviner: Nursing in Shul Just Fine

Rabbi Eliyahu Against Nursing in Bathrooms

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Comments

  1. mominisrael says:

    Yael, I suggest buying or borrowing a comfortable baby sling; it will serve you well in the future as well. Your legs will still feel it while you are standing in shul, but your arms won’t hurt. And your baby will be happy.

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  2. mominisrael says:

    Ilana, how aggravating. Good for you for not letting it get to you. I’m sure the nursing mothers reading appreciate your perspective.
    Jack, I hope I put the discussion into perspective. Thanks for stopping by.

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  3. You’ve made some excellent points, Mom. I know that all the kids running around, the bags of Bamba, the strollers (even when it was clear that there wasn’t room for anymore!) bothered me much, much more than the woman who nursed modestly- though not more than the other woman I mentioned before, the one who sat there “hanging out” for a long time in a very public area until she finally started nursing.
    I applaud your shul’s seating plan, what a great idea!

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  4. I really agree with everything you said.
    This was my first year in shul with an infant. We all went to the early minyan. It was the best way for all of us to get around the stroller ban in the regular minyan. They banned all strollers because there is no room. I don’t know how we will hold the baby the whole time on Yom kippur. He is 7 kg already and it really hurts my arms after a few minutes.
    I also could hear everything from the adjacent children’s room/office where I nursed him (there are few children there that early), and from the back of the room when we were walking in circles to keep him happy.
    I thought I wrote on the from that I wanted a seat I could get out of easily, I am in the exact middle of the row, but it is the last row–could be worse–but it also could be better.

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  5. Two terrific posts on this topic, MominIsrael. I also like your shul’s seating plan for the High Holidays.
    I nursed all my children discreetly in shul, as did another mother or two. There were people who were uncomfortable with it, and approached a third party to talk to me about it! Also, someone brought it up on our shul’s e-mail list, and people discussed it for a few days. I participated for a few days, but saw that it only kept things going so I stopped and so did the discussion. I kept nursing discreetly in shul, though.
    A few years later someone else approached me with a negative comment about my having nursed in shul (with a different child). I smiled and just said, “thank you for your input”. Bottom line, people are entitled to feel uncomfortable, but in this case I don’t feel their opinions need to take priority over feeding my baby or participating in services. Not everyone will approve of everything we do, and we don’t actually need approval from everyone (although it can be hard to let go of that).
    I’ll end with a nice story: an older gentleman once approached me about nursing in shul. I braced myself for criticism, but he told me how wonderful he thought it was.

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  6. I have never understood the fighting over nursing. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

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  7. Oh, I did let it get to me, very much. I had to work hard to achieve the attitude I wanted and to give the answers I felt were effective. Good lesson for life, though.

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  8. I once nursed my oldest daughter in shul while saying Kaddish for my brother. That was the same child my brother never knew I was expecting (he passed away before I could tell him). That was the same child where we found out that not only was she still alive, but was a twin (via a very early u/s because of spotting) on the same day my brother passed away. Nurturing that child while remembering my brother and his passing was one of the most moving experiences in my life. No one had any idea what I was doing. I’m SO very glad no one made an negative comments.
    It was already such a hassle to try to get to services. I only made a point of it because it was my brother’s Yarzeit. My husband was deployed at the time and I had to find a way to juggle twin babies. If someone had insisted I step out before I got to say Kaddish or if someone had tried to shame me into leaving on my own, I would have been beyond crushed.

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  9. There are so many instances of unacceptable behavior in Batei Knesset, I just can’t understand the fuss over nursing b’tzniut, especially in a room outside the main sanctuary.

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  10. My particular mix of ages and stages this year has me at home rather than in shul, but I am following this discussion wholeheartedly.
    At least there’s nobody to pass judgement on me (ironic during the season of Yom HaDin) when I’m nursing while davening at home with the kids, playing with them, and occasionally refereeing!

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  11. mominisrael says:

    Hi Reiza–thanks for sharing your story. I like your blog,

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  12. mominisrael says:

    RR–I see I convinced you :)

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  13. mama o'matrices says:

    *grin*
    M.i.I, I’m with you. I think there’s a lot we can do as a community to accomodate the families that we encourage. A few shabbatot ago, I was reading a quiet story to my kids while the Man did some leining. (Note: at this shul, it’s not uncommon to see a man leining/leading davening with a toddler/baby in his arms, or have a toddler pull a chair up and sit/stand next to the father. It’s that kind of shul – for now.)
    A couple of pages into the book, I realized that my audience had doubled, and I ended up with a whole crew of kids. I kept them quiet and occupied for maybe 15 minutes, and then they moved on to the next parent who had something interesting and quiet to do.
    What I liked was that only a couple of people felt their personal davening took priority over the kehila as a whole. So, whenever you were on point, you spent some time engaging the kids quietly so that everyone else could enjoy the calm.
    That feels like a community to me. Admittedly, it feels like a small one, which has it’s own minuses, but at least there’s more positive than self-righteous energy going on.
    (do I sound self-satisfied? I’m a little smug, I admit it. I’d be smugger if the kehilla was larger/more stable…then I’d be insufferable.)

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  14. Having nursed all my kids in shul (through preschoolerhood) am always infuriated by the ignorant folks who insist it’s not allowed.
    For the record, not only are women allowed to pray while nursing, but men are also allowed to daven in a room where a woman is nursing.
    Kol ha’kavod to your blog. So glad to have found it …

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