Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Lenten Question: Should I Fast When I'm Nursing

I first wrote this post in 2011 and while I would change parts of it if I were writing it today (I'm definitely more aware of how difficult it is to give up meat when you have other major dietary restrictions), it's a topic that I still see come up every year around this time and I thought it would be the perfect time to repost it.  And while I don't stress it in this post because I was so focused on nursing when I wrote it, the same definitely also goes for those of us who are pregnant during this Lenten season.  When you're body is nourishing others it's not a great idea to deprive it of nutrients.
  Every year I see the question come up on the Catholic forums. Are nursing and/or pregnant mothers excused from the fast? There is always immediately a flurry of responses. For the most part they are filled with common sense. But then the encouragement starts... as in "I'm nursing and I'm fasting and I still have a ton of milk. You should do it too." These answers worry me (more on that below). Anyways here is the formal answer to whether or not we're required to fast, which will be followed by my own experience with the matter:
"Those who are excused from fast or abstinence Besides those outside the age limits, those of unsound mind, the sick, the frail, pregnant or nursing women according to need for meat or nourishment, manual laborers according to need, guests at a meal who cannot excuse themselves without giving great offense or causing enmity and other situations of moral or physical impossibility to observe the penitential discipline."

From EWTN's Fasting and Abstinence
Now many of us can give up meat. I know that, as I design my food schedule on a budget, we have plenty of days that, unintentionally, don't include meat. And since eggs and dairy products are allowed, it's pretty easy to get adequate protein in other ways (we tried Greek Yogurt recently, I believe it was Yoplait, and it had something like 13 g of protein! It's hard to beat that in anything! And for those worried about health it has 0g of fat! And it was tasty!).

Fasting, however, is an entirely different thing. And the mentality that many of us can fall into can be dangerous. We may think "well she's only nursing x number of time a day... How much can one day of fasting in a week (two during this first week) really affect my milk supply." For some, rare women, it may not be much. But for many of us, the result would be dramatic.

When Sadie was almost one I thought I'd be okay "cutting back" on Ash Wednesday. She was eating a lot of baby foods and while she still nursed quite a bit I didn't think that one day would really affect my milk supply all that much. Besides, I told myself, I would still eat two small meals and one big meal. I wouldn't be doing the whole bread and water thing. Really the main difference was that I was cutting out snacks.

I was fine all day and so was my milk supply. Then it was bedtime and I was faced with a very hungry baby. And suddenly it was gone. I had no milk. And I had a baby who lay next to be and sobbed herself to sleep.

It took over a day for my milk supply to return to normal. And in that time I had a miserable, hungry, cranky baby and a dribbling supply of milk that slowly returned as I ate.

You may be able to nurse and fast. But there's a good chance you may not. And why would anyone want to risk finding out? I think we can all agree that the babe in our arms isn't included in the fast.

Sure, some little bit of pride in the back of my head tells me I can fast every single year. After all, I'm only nursing... well let's see... six.... or seven times a day... and Maggie gets a lot of her food from baby food these days... I tell that tiny thought to be quiet. It's not what's best for my baby. And that is the important thing.

There's very likely plenty of time in the future for fasting. For now, if you're a nursing mom, accept your exemption and know that sometimes it's harder not to fast when everyone else is fasting and you'd really like to join them (aren't we an odd bunch! Really, wanting to fast?).

Besides, there are many of substitutes we can make. Give up the internet (okay, I'm not doing this, but I've heard of brave souls who do!). Or your cell phone (that would be easy for me... I'm always forgetting mine. I haven't seen it in two weeks although I suspect it's dead at the bottom of my diaper bag). Or television! There are lots of sacrifices we can make that don't affect the well-being of our children.

Just pick something that has become a distraction in your life and see how the next forty days go without it!


  1. Thank you for this. Part of me feels bad every year because I've been either pregnant or nursing during Lent since '12 and I'm nursing again this year. Even today while eating with the kids I had an "oh no! I need to fast today." Moment before I remembered that I'm nursing (weird I know. But the nursing is such a normal part of my day now that I don't even think about. lol). I see others giving up things around food or fasting more than the required days for Lent and I have to stomp out the envy that creeps up. I know it's silly, but it's nice to see someone post something supportive of nursing/pregnant moms during this season.

    On a side note: We are taking both babies to Mass tonight (we were sick last year) and I am so nervous about how they will do sitting through it (we're not "real" Catholics, but Since my father is I want my kids to grow up understanding the Church - unlike me - so that when they are older they can follow that path if God leads them.) So say a little prayer for us please. I've thought about taking them to Mass so many times, but get scared since I don't know how to handle it with little ones. I find so much encouragement from your posts about taking your little ones to Mass.

    I almost wish older more seasoned mothers in the church would come along side younger ones to help them learn how to navigate things. I started looking into converting right before we had our first child, but haven't done anything with it because of the fear or stress that I feel when trying to learn not only about a new practice of faith, but also trying to navigate those waters as a new and learning mother.


  2. Thank you so much. I'm a new mom with a 6-week-old, and I was feeling really wimpy for taking the exception. Yes I'm hungry all the time, but I just assumed that would just make the fast harder *for me*, I had no idea it could mess with my milk supply.

  3. Thank you so much for posting this. I'm 10 weeks pregnant with my first, and I've had such a hard time eating that I'm down 15 lbs. I feel totally wimpy not fasting today, but the baby needs every calorie I can get in me. To be honest, it would have been physically easy to fast. Thank you, this eased some of my guilt.

  4. Excellent post, full of the common sense that is so often lacking in this discussion.



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