Sunday, April 26, 2009

Breastfeeding Babies and Tzniut

Guest Post by A Mother in Israel (

An earlier version of this post, Nursing in the Ezrat Nashim, appeared last year as a followup to a post about a woman asked to nurse her baby in the bathroom on Rosh Hashanah.

Which of the following 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.
  • 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. Well, the last one may not have--I have no way of knowing for sure. So why should a nursing mother, who is not bothering anybody, be singled out?

Even if your shul has more decorum than mine, people quietly tending to their children's needs 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 don't have to stop activities they enjoy once they become mothers.
  2. Negative message: In order to breastfeed your baby, you must isolate yourself. 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 our community should recognize this.
  3. Negative message: Breastfeeding is inherently untzniusdik. Truth: Breastfeeding isn't sexual, and a nursing mother need not hide away until her baby weans. She can nurse without putting her breast on view. But if a woman prefers 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 so we will place roadblocks in their attempts to participate. Truth: Our community welcomes families, and ought to support mothers even if we prefer not to see them nursing.
Women should have their eyes on the siddur, not on their neighbors. Let's not put artificial restrictions on women that have nothing to do with halacha.

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