Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Breastfeeding in the Jewish tradition

Following my previous post about breastfeeding, I decided to go online and dig up some information about breastfeeding in the Jewish Law. Most people in my surroundings are religious, so hopefully, negative comments about breastfeeding might be stopped if I present some sources connected with our tradition.

Breastfeeding was always seen as positive in the Jewish tradition. There are several mentions of breastfeeding in the Scriptures, all in a very positive light. One example is Hannah's lament about her breasts being unused to nurse a baby, while this is obviously what they were created for.

The standard time of breastfeeding is two years. Some even say more. But certainly nowhere does it say to stop at one year or less. This is something people, even religious Jews, often ignore these days. A few days ago, I read a letter from a woman to a rabbi. She asked for advice on how to wean her one-year-old so that he could be put in daycare. The rabbi said, "Our sages recommended breastfeeding for two years, but obviously, these days it's alright to stop after one year." Why, though? Of course there is more food, and a baby (thankfully) is in no danger of starvation if he isn’t breastfed. But there are still many perks to breastfeeding beyond one year, some connected directly to health, some emotional. Mother's milk is still nutritious and immunologically beneficial.

Then the rabbi proceeded to giving the woman advice to go on a trip for a week, after which her son would supposedly wean automatically. I was shocked to read that. How cruel. Even if a child is in daycare, he can still be nursed mornings and evenings. It might prompt weaning, of course, but it won't be as abrupt and traumatic for the child and mother as just leaving for a week.

This is something I really don't get, this all-or-nothing approach. For some reason, I have noticed, many people seem to think that babies are supposed to go from nursing around the clock straight to being weaned completely. Not so. I've had people ask me, "your baby can survive without your milk now, why don't you wean her?" Weaning is supposed to be gradual, like most processes in our life. A child doesn't just start running one day after lying still in his crib. He sits, crawls, pulls himself up, makes a first tentative step… it's just the same with weaning. It's a long way from the time a baby tastes his first foods until the time he is ready to relinquish mama's breast. Why be so impatient?


ROSIE said...

Dear Anna,

Thank you for these thought-provoking and wonderful posts on breastfeeding. I breastfed all my children, and had to wean to of them early for medical reasons (I needed life-saving medications that would have been harmful to the baby coming through the breast milk). However, the other two self-weaned. One a bit earlier than the other...For my oldest daughter, even when "num num" (as she called it) was just a tiny sip upon waking and a tiny sip upon bedtime, more for comfort than anything, it was still a precious time between us. She self-weaned entirely at 23 months of age. One day, I suddenly realized she'd not had any of my milk for several days, and that was it. It was a bit sad...but I also cherished her growing up and a new step in her life. A few months later she patted me on the chest and said "Mommy's milk is in there" and smiled. Clearly the precious memories of comfort and nourishment made a difference in her life, too.

In your post you mentioned a rabbi who advocated sudden weaning by the mother taking a week's trip. This is traumatic for both child and mother. Also, even if mom pumps occasionally to relieve the preassure, she is far more likely to experience engorgement, a clogged milk duct, and mastitis than if the baby gradually self-weans.

KerryAnn said...

I think the issue really boils down to that problem that most people view the breast as a bottle substitue instead of the other way around. It can be turned on and off like a tap. Until that perception changes, teaching about weaning issues is going to be an uphill battle.

Stam House said...

Great post well said!
I think the tendency of the early weaning or early food introduction is partly coming from the fact that women want to go back to work her career and partly with the fact that breastfeeding is a inconvenience to some mothers that feels trap nursing baby day and night!

Since when a child that God has given you should be a inconvenience to you instead of a blessing!!!!

Rosemary said...

Breastfeeding is a beautiful gift, both for the child and the mom. I loved those days (long ago), when I nurtured and nurished my children at the breast.
My daughter-in-law is now nursing my grandson. She has been doing so for over a year. She has made the decision to go back to work part-time.(leaving him with me, Nonna). Weaning J is not in the picture right now. He nurses morning, after work, and in the evening. On her days off, he can nurse whenever. My DIL is thrilled that this special time does not have to abruptly end. J, I am sure, feels secure and happy. His mommy is letting him set the pace of weaning.
I hope your time nursing Shira continues on for as long as Shira wants and needs to nurse.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Mrs. Anna! Also gradual is implied in the word "weaning"! If not it would just be called "quitting." That isn't a hard concept, but it's amazing how many people manage to mess it up!

Noelle said...

I applaud your stance on breastfeeding and agree with you that there's no need to be so impatient. Breastfeeding for two years is also part of the Muslim tradition. I still breastfeed my daughter, who is 20-months-old. She is rarely been sick, is very active, and is overall healthier than her older sister who was not breastfed. I see great benefits in breastfeeding, not only for the child's health, but also the mother-child connection.

Of course, at 20 months, my daughter is eating food regularly, but I still nurse in the middle of the night and before bed.

I wish I had nursed my oldest daughter; the only reason I didn't is because some horrible nurse at the hospital told me my I wasn't able to because my baby wouldn't latch on. Instead of encouraging me to continue or consulting a lactation nurse, she told me to stop trying and give her formuala. I'm convinced that her frequent bouts with bronchitis, wheezing, and colds are attributable to not getting antibodies from my breastmilk.

Continue to nurse your daughter until you feel she no longer needs it. Don't listen to the naysayers.

Mommy Lynda said...

I agree with both posts. Yesterdays and todays.

Laura said...

I think it's ironic that women get such a backlash for breastfeeding longer than a year, yet the bottle crowds aren't expected to drop the bottle the minute the baby blows out the candle on the cake! If anyone says anything at all against giving the bottle to a 3 year old, it's only about damage to their teeth. However, if you talk about nursing a 2-3 year old, you are emotionally scarring them and they'll be nursing forever.

Weaning is important for both the mother and child. You must know your child and do what is best. Sometimes mom needs to encourage the weaning process with a very laid-back baby. Sometimes she needs to just keep going with a very high-need baby. Sometimes you'll have a very independent baby who want to nurse one day, then be done the next. The important thing is to encourage the natural process of weaning, not suddenly cut off or over-encourage.

The advice that rabbi gave to that woman was so cruel. I can't imagine the heartache and fear that little baby went through being abruptly left for a week without his momma.

Thursday's Child said...

With the exception of those who can't breastfeed for some reason (or those, like the above commenter, who've been told they can't), I think the overall reason for lack of willingness to breastfeed is just plain selfishness. Why put up with the *inconvenience* when formula can free you up for other things?

Anonymous said...

"slow weaning with love" is the best advice I've heard so far in regard to weaning. My son is 6 months old and I plan to breastfeed until he is two if all goes well. Perhaps decrease the amount breast feeding little by little until the child is ready to go completely without.

And really from many firsthand experiences I've heard so far, mommies will miss breastfeeding too once it's done. So really, shouldn't we just savor this precious moments..? Rushing it out won't do any good.. definitely not for the child!


Hearth said...

I wasn't able to breastfeed my son, and was only able to breastfeed my daughter after a struggle... so we continued breastfeeding until she was 18mo old.

That's when I found out that early back teeth are *not* a good thing combined with nursing-to-sleep... she had major cavities.

Daddy put her to bed for a week, and we weaned completely (we weren't nursing except at bedtime and naptime by that point).

If it hadn't been for the cavity issue, we would have nursed longer. She benefited *greatly* from the extended nursing, and it made life much easier.

Just... once they have teeth, brush 'em after nursing! :)

Anonymous said...

I went back to work when my daughter was 4 months old and breastfed her (no formula) until she was 14 months.

Going back to work is no excuse to stop breastfeeding. Pumping can be a pain, but it is worth it!

Anonymous said...

The word "wean" means to become accustomed to other food gradually. GRADUALLY.

Also, I found this in the bible dictionary:

Among the Hebrews children (whom it was customary for the mothers to nurse, Ex. 2:7-9; 1 Sam. 1:23; Cant. 8:1) were not generally weaned till they were three or four years old.


Analytical Adam said...

What bothers me is an issue as basic as breastfeeding something the wife should be talking with the husband about. Many of the women to day don't even speak to their husbands about anything and for all purposes the really are married to the Rabbi. A decent Rabbi would also ask a woman if she spoke to her husband or find out what her husband feels about the topic. Not want a woman to runt them about every question.

I really don't see why I and most men are needed other then to be blamed and scapegoated.

A person should only ask a Rabbi on a major question and even then he should get more then one opinion and not go to a Rabbi that is his shul Rabbi because that Rabbi has a conflict of interest.

I really have been disconnected from the so called religious for years because (and this blog doesn't make me feel better about it) in the most hostile condonsending way. ALmost nothing in Rabbinic writing have anything nice to say about rank and file Jewish men.

Lena said...

I am so blessed that I was able to nurse all my 3 little girls. It is such a special time for my little one, and she just turned one recently. I feel that breast feeding is not just nourishment, but comfort, love, and attachment, for the baby as for the mother. Sinse I have to work, I feel this is the only thing that only I can provide, and making the commitment on pumping while at work, I give my little one a part of me, even when I am not there. I like this passage in the bible. even God speaks about breastfeeding. Isaiah 66:10-13

Courtney said...

Thank you so much for this information! My son gets my breast milk, but I have been pumping for nearly a year because he had a sucking disorder and was unable to latch properly. I tried for five months to also breastfeed, but he was never able to get it. I'm getting a lot of pressure to stop pumping at the 1-year mark because he can be transitioned to dairy, but I have a lot of reservations about it.
I think it would be easier if he showed some signs of being done with the breast milk, but he still drinks 18oz a day, and it just seems strange to transition him when the breast milk is still best. It is very encouraging to see other mothers who plan to breastfeed past 1 year.

angela said...

I think that most of the problem is that people no longer understand that breastfeeding is for comfort and security just as much as nutrition. I have always breastfed my babies until very close to a new baby coming. I have people always giving me their opinions and I just continue to do what is right for my family. My doctor with each pregnancy has told me to stop nursing because of problems it will cause the new baby, but I have had 3 healthy beautiful babies. It just gives them a little more time to be the baby... Thanks again!!!

Pendragon said...

A major factor in all this I think is widespread cultural discomfort with women's bodies and their functions. This is especially true in America, because we are such a prudish culture that prefers everything sanitized. We don't like anything that reminds us of messy biological realities, and women's childbearing and nursing functions tend to that. I think the "yuck" factor has a huge role in people's negative reaction to breastfeeding.

That said, I also think that it is valid for a woman to take her own needs and desires into account when deciding when to stop breastfeeding. Her need to earn money, go to work, be comfortable, not be trapped, etc. are valid and important too. There is no reason these needs can't be balanced with that of the child. Breastfeeding is great, and perhaps ideal, but it is not the only way to feed a baby.

Ultimately, as well, regardless of whom she consults, breastfeeding decisions have to be the woman's. The woman has the final say -- not the doctor, not the rabbi, not the husband. This decision intimately affects her as well as the child, and therefore, it is up to her the best decision to balance the needs of herself, her family, and her baby. There are no right or wrong answers here because everyone's situation is different, and there are alternatives to breastfeeding.

Shelly said...

My little boy will be 2 years old in 4 days and he is still nursing. He nurses at night, first thing in the morning, and whenever he feels the need for that little bit of comfort. I have received some criticism for nursing a toddler, but I look at my happy, healthy, loving little boy and know in my heart that I'm doing the right thing.
It's too bad our society tries to put limits on the way we choose to raise and nurture our little ones.
By the way, I went back to working outside the home when my son was 7 weeks old, but was able to pump enough to keep him off of formula completely.

Jenny Izirba said...

Hi Anna,

I am surprised that breastfeeding is not promoted more heavily in Israel for its role in reducing breast cancer rates. In North America, women of Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity have much higher rates of breast cancer than non-Jewish woman because of a mutation of the BRCA1 gene that is more common in the Jewish population. This mutation increases the likelihood that breast cancer will develop. From my understanding, breastfeeding (like pregnancy) is thought to lower the chances that breast or ovarian cancers will develop because it inhibits estrogen levels (this is the same reason that breastfeeding often inhibits menstruation).

Analytical Adam said...

My comment here was inaccurate as this was mentioning an article written by a Rabbi not going to a Rabbi which obviously is much different. Sorry for bring up an issue which wasn't even relevant here.

Sarah said...

My daughter is 11 months old today, and has been refusing to nurse for the past couple of weeks. I've tried everything I can think of to entice her back, but she just won't do it anymore. I had every intention of nursing until she weaned herself, but didn't expect it to happen so soon.

Which is exactly the point. She weaned. I tried everything I could to keep her going, but she has her own personality and decided she didn't want to do it any more. I can not imagine deliberately separating myself from a baby who obviously still wants to nurse, just to make them stop. And would be tempted to slap anyone who instructed me to do so.

I'm just glad she still enjoys cuddling, because I miss it terribly.

Anonymous said...

Little Shira is so blessed to have you as her mama. :)

Regarding sudden weaning - aside from the emotional effect to the baby (which must be awful!), that abrupt change to the mother's hormones wreaks havoc on her emotions, and can cause mood swings and depression.
My friend weaned quickly, and she said she'll never do it that way again for that reason.

With my three children so far, they have each gradually self weaned during my pregnancy with the next little one, which was gentle on both of us.


Jasmine said...

Thank you so much for this post.

I recently wrote on my findings and experience breastfeeding my six babies.

Go here if you'd like to read.

Also, if you don't mind, the Lord has been leading me to learn more on the Hebrew Culture and Language. Is there a book you can recommend that might be helpful to me?

Thank you very much.


Jo said...

Hi Anna, thought you might find this interesting. I read in the paper yesterday about the increasing number of toddlers with tooth decay, due to sugary drinks in feeding bottles and snacks such as sweets, cakes and chocolate. Isn't this terrible - why would carers (including mothers) do this to children.

This isn't going to happen with breast feeding!

Read more:

Anonymous said...

Hello Anna,

I have read your blog for many months and am always blessed by it. Thank you. Your thoughts on breastfeeding and weaning are so very wise! Many, including you, have mentioned the benefits of nursing beyond a year, so I won't go there though I know many. Instead I will just share two things.

Weaning begins the moment a baby has something besides breastmilk, whether it is bottle of water or solid food, and ends when the baby no longer nurses at all. This process can take days, weeks, months, and sometimes years. The more the process is left to the natural need of the baby and the mother, the better off for both!

In one account I read, which I have always loved, the old Greek (or maybe Latin, I don't remember) meaning of the word from which we get the word "wean" means "to be satisfied". Isn't that a beautiful picture? A sweet baby gets what what she needs from her mama until she no longer needs it and is satisfied to move on to the next phase of growing up!

Thank you for your beautiful, encouraging, meaningful blog.

Karen :-)

CappuccinoLife said...

Loving your posts, Anna. I really enjoy learning about the Jewish perspective on all the issues you bring up. :)

Anonymous said...

Many uninformed, inexperienced people do not realize breast-feeding is not just for food. It is also for comfort, boding, cuddling with baby. I also found it so relaxing. I nursed my baby for 2 1/2 years (even while working 3 days/week) because it was just what I needed to relax. I know my blood pressure decreased with let down. Just like hormones can cause behaviors like PMS, they can also cause relaxation. Moms who don't breast feed for very long miss out on this wonderful gift from Hashem. We also have a biblical example of Moshe who was not weaned until he was 3.
Mrs. G

Katie C said...

Although I am not Jewish I share a lot of the values. My Daughter is 21 months old and I've been told by my family to wean her, I disagree respectfully. I want her to either wean when she's ready or when she turns 3, I want to give her the best start I possible can but it's hard to explain that with parents who did breastfeed my brothers and I but not as long as I plan to, it's a little easier to talk about it with my mother but my father sees it as a slap in the face to his parenting.