Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Should I Fast While Pregnant or Nursing during Lent?

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. Excellent post, then and now. Sometimes I just want to say, "where is your common sense, for Pete's sake?" when I hear of expectant/nursing moms agonizing over whether they should fast and feeling guilty if they don't.

    When you are responsible for nourishing a little one, you can be sure that Jesus Himself would tell you to either give up a favorite activity, or do something positive (extra Bible study, daily Mass) as a penitential act. He would NOT want you to take any chances with your health or that of your baby.


    1. I'm always both surprised how much it comes up and not surprised at all... it's like I logically know I can't fast and there's still this little scrupulous voice that I have to resist each year. Which is probably why I need to post this each year to remind myself!

  2. I was not planning on fasting but it's nice to see some solidarity in the "don't feel guilty" department. And I do have to quiet the voice in the back of my head about it only being "one day."

    1. I definitely can relate on the solidarity front (and the little voice front... even having experienced it I still have to push those thoughts to the side each year and remind myself of what happened when I tried it!).

  3. Great post! Very timely I'm nursing and was actually thinking about this today! :)

    1. Thank you! I know it was something I thought about so much (and still think about each year!) so I'm glad it helped!


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