Tzniut (Modesty) and Breastfeeding in Public

I saw several women and girls in shalim (modesty cloaks) at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo the other day. One shal-wearing mother was sitting on a bench, peacefully nursing her baby. Her shirt hid her breast completely and she saw no need for a blanket, apron or other cover.

Comfort with public breastfeeding has nothing to do with Jewish laws of tzniut (modesty) and everything to do with attitudes toward breastfeeding.   Many women who show lots of skin become squeamish when it comes to nursing in public. The question is whether breastfeeding is seen as a way to feed a baby, or is it the idea, common in western culture, that breasts are mainly about sex?

I grew up in the United States with a positive attitude about breastfeeding, but discomfort with public nursing. Despite my self-consciousness I nursed everywhere both for convenience and because I wanted others, especially my children, to see breastfeeding as normal. Israelis have less of an issue with nursing in public than Americans do, although that may be starting to change.

Women should be able to nurse when and where they want without harassment. Breastfeeding advocates insist that the debate about public breastfeeding is thinly disguised gender discrimination. Keeping breastfeeding mothers hidden keeps prevents them from participating in public life. But it’s hard enough to get through a day caring for young children without having to worry about offending someone every time your baby gets hungry.

Some mothers prefer to nurse privately and don’t mind leaving the scene. But not all mothers are the same. I felt isolated away from the action.

Jewish law doesn’t place restrictions on women nursing in public, in front of men, or in the synagogue, as long as their breasts are covered. And the idea that public breastfeeding should be prohibited because it makes people uncomfortable is as absurd as keeping pregnant women in the house because people might think about how they got that way.

One blog suggested that breastfeeding should be prohibited in the synagogue because eating is forbidden. But no one stops babies from drinking from a bottle in a synagogue—the restriction on eating simply doesn’t apply to babies. And if you take that argument to its logical conclusion, you couldn’t nurse a baby in other situations where eating is prohibited like the bathroom (an unhygienic and humiliating suggestion) or while the baby is naked.

I wonder if that mother considered shlepping her toddler to nurse the baby in the hot, crowded bathroom a short distance away. I’m glad she didn’t think it was necessary.

Related Posts:

Nursing in the Ezrat Nashim

Modiin Woman Told to Nurse in Bathroom

Breastfeeding and the Working Mother

The “Cringe” Factor: Breastfeeding in Public

No, Emuna, There Are No Lactation Police

Check out the 2016 fashions at Hydrochic modest swimwear.

Comments

  1. eating is forbidden. But no one stops babies from drinking from a bottle in a synagogue
    I have also seen synagogues where children ate (cookies and sweets) more or less all the time and no one seemed to bat an eyelid. I think the idea of women breastfeeding in public just makes people uncomfortable.

  2. Please understand that the comment you are about to read comes from a woman who breastfed ALL of her children for long (some would say too long 😉 ) periods of time and somebody who is still “young enough” to remember the challenges and (sometimes necessary) sacrifices of young motherhood.
    Women should NOT breastfeed in shul.
    Women should not bottle feed in shul.
    Women should not feed cookies to children in shul.
    Women should not bring children that small to shul in order so that they may have a chance to daven in such an enviroment.
    Women should not send their husbands to shul with small children so that they may “have a break”.
    It is a very selfish act and though these women may benefit from the davening, they are disturbing the tefillos of countless others. It is NOT chinuch to bring a child that young to shul. Once a child becomes old enough to learn about shul, he/she presumbably is old enough to receive the proper chinuch that one doesn’t eat in shul and the benefits of said chinuch needs to be weighed very carefully against any detriment being done to the kavanah of the tzibbur.
    This may sound harsh, but it is not meant that way.

  3. Well I guess there’s actually one advantage to a wearing a shal in the middle of a hot Israeli summer I hadn’t thought of! But seriously I can’t begin to tell you how many times the feeling that it’s not tzniut to nurse in public has contributed to breastfeeding failure in the US. I have suggested to many frum women that they can get a bebe au lait or hooter hider and nurse where ever and when ever they want and it it will be completely modest but I think the mere suggestion of nursing has implications of immodesty for many.

    I have always felt comfortable nursing where ever and when ever I need to. My attitude is that if you don’t like it then don’t look. I am, however, definitely in the minority in the frum community here and am sure that I have ruffled a few feathers over the years.

  4. mominisrael says:

    Ilana-Davita,
    I imagine that is especially true in France, which has among the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe.
    G6: I agree with many of the items on your list. I don’t agree that breastfeeding per se disturbs other women, because they don’t have to look. A lot of things in shul are more disruptive, like wheelchairs. At any rate, forbid women from bringing all small children to shul if you like (and I agree that small children can be disruptive) but once you allow babies breastfeeding should be allowed as well. Toddlers running around are disruptive, breastfeeding a two-month-old is not.
    I think it’s problematic to prevent women from coming to shul on thin or non-existent halachic grounds. You were okay with making the sacrifice but not everyone is.
    UWSM: I think you are right both about the discomfort and the breastfeeding failure.

  5. G6, I am going to side with MiL here. The last set of Yamim Noraim that I spent a good deal of time in shul was in 2004, when I had only a 3 month old nursling. She was in a sling, nursing or sleeping pretty much the whole time. Once she was crawling she was not so keen to sit still…now that she is 5 and reads, she can go to shul with my husband and read quietly–but only for Friday night or Shabbat mincha (Shabbat morning is too long still). Of course I still don’t go because I also have a 3 year old, who would sit for maybe 2 minutes.

    Some kids, though, have a remarkable ability to not be disruptive–a child we know (now almost 5) has ALWAYS gone to shul with his father and has always been happy to sit quietly. If it takes a few crackers to keep the peace, I don’t see anything wrong with it. I think that MOST little kids cannot sit like he can. But why leave him at home? Because he’s been in shul so much, he is already up to saying Adon Olam/Yigdal in front of a ton of people!

    But anyway, I’ve nursed a lot of places. In NY I always had the law on my side…

  6. When my first few kids were babies I never considered nursing them in public, but by the time I had the 4th it was impossible to do anything with the older kids without being able to nurse the baby. So from then on I often nursed in public. It was never a matter of tznius, because I could nurse completely covered, but a matter of making others feel comfortable and (I’ll admit) worrying about how people perceived me. I guess I’ve come a long way since those days since now I do not worry what other people will think (though my nursing days are behind me).

  7. We spent last Shabbat away (it was my sister-in-law’s Shabbat chatan), and as always when we are away from home, finding a place to breastfeed became an issue. I nursed in the geniza in the Beit Knesset. I nursed in a deserted playground while everyone else were eating. It was alright at night, but during the day I was mad, hot, hungry and miserable, trying to find a shadowed spot behind a bomb shelter while everyone were enjoying a leisurely meal in an air-conditioned hall (we had our meals not anywhere near to where we slept, so I couldn’t even retreat to our room).

    And then, when I came back inside, I noticed a woman sitting on the floor and nursing her baby with her breast ALL HANGING OUT. Nobody seemed to be paying her the slightest bit of attention. And then I thought, perhaps I should get over my hang-ups as well?!

    • mominisrael says:

      Thank you Anna, Kate and Tesyaa for sharing your story. Anna, I feel for you! It is not the time of year to be nursing outside. Mazal tov on the simcha.

  8. Yes so true that children need to see BF as natural. Hiding it creates confusion regarding shame versus norm. It is easy to nurse without showing much skin at all. And unless someone is staring, they would never see a nipple.

  9. “where eating is prohibited like the bathroom (an unhygienic and humiliating suggestion”

    i read in a recent hirhurim post (or comment there?) that the issur on eating in a bathroom is about ???? and not hygiene.

    G6:

    having davened in struggling and dying shuls for most of my life, i love to hear little kids being disruptive. don’t take that luxury for granted.

  10. that should read “about shedim and not hygiene”

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