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.
- Negative message: Breastfeeding is exceptional and unusual. Truth: Breastfeeding is natural and normal and mothers can do it as part of their normal activities.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.