Thursday, September 12, 2013

Fasting During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Yom Kippur is this Saturday. Jews customarily fast for 25 hours during this holiest of days in order to distance ourselves from worldly needs and focus on prayer and repentance. When we're pregnant or nursing, however, our babies cannot be totally out of mind, since we still have to meet their needs even while denying ourselves our own.

There are five minor fast days on the Jewish calendar (a minor fast is from sunup to sundown only, while a major fast - of which there are two - is from sundown to sundown). Typically, pregnant and nursing mothers are exempt from minor fasts, because they need to stay hydrated and nourished for their health and the health of their babies. In Islam, too, as I understand it, pregnancy and breastfeeding are considered health exemptions from fasting.

Yom Kippur, however, is different. If you have a health problem that would make it dangerous for you to fast, you can talk to your doctor and rabbi about whether you should attempt a fast or not. For example, a diabetic who needs to maintain blood sugars probably cannot (and should not) fast. However, pregnancy and breastfeeding, assuming the mother and child are otherwise healthy, are not automatically grounds for exemption from the Yom Kippur fast.

I, personally, have fasted several times now while pregnant or breastfeeding. All of my kids were fall babies, so I have been either heavily pregnant or nursing a young baby during Yom Kippur for many years. While it is not easy to fast even when you have only yourself to worry about, it is safe to fast for one day even while nourishing a growing baby.

By fasting, I mean refraining from all food and drink, including water. This means that you need to make sure you are well hydrated before the fast begins. Dehydration can reduce your milk supply when nursing, and it can cause contractions, swelling, and discomfort when pregnant. Some women who are near their due date at Yom Kippur do go into labor on or shortly after the fast day due to the stress fasting places on their bodies. If you are concerned about this happening to you, please consult with your care provider and a rabbi. Being sure that you are well hydrated in advance of the fast will reduce the negative effects of refraining from water for one day.

Many of us walk around chronically slightly dehydrated. It's hard to make sure we're drinking enough water. This is the single most important element in a successful and relatively easy fast, so make sure you plan for it. In the two or three days leading up to the fast, drink considerably more water than you usually do. Keep a bottle or glass of water nearby and constantly refill it. If you're starting out from a slightly dehydrated state, like me, you need to not only get what you need for the day, but you need to make up for the deficit you already have. Drink until your pee runs clear, and then keep up that level of hydration throughout the days leading up to the fast.

On the day before the fast, especially at the last meal before the fast begins, make sure you eat a meal with plenty of protein and complex carbohydrates. Don't make your meal too salty or sugary, as these will dehydrate you, and simple sugars will give you a short burst of energy that will wear off quickly and leave you feeling hungrier. You need something that will give you a slow burn. I usually have chicken and brown rice before a fast. Do have that last glass of water, too. Every drop helps. This advice applies to anyone planning to fast, not just pregnant or breastfeeding women.

If you're nursing, continue to nurse on demand. You may find your supply decreases temporarily toward the end of the day, and your baby will probably nurse more frequently in the days following the fast in order to bring back your milk supply. As long as you rehydrate and eat well once the fast ends, your supply should recover easily. If your baby is also eating solids, you may find that it helps you to offer more solid foods during the fast to reduce the load on your body. Make sure you return to your regular nursing routine following the fast so that you do not permanently harm your supply.

If you're pregnant, pay close attention to your body and the movements of your baby. Make sure your baby is moving around. If you notice any strong contractions, keep track of how powerful they are and how often they occur. If you have more than four or five strong contractions in an hour, lie down and rest. If they do not subside, talk to your rabbi about possibly breaking the fast and drinking some water to calm the contractions, especially if you are still a while from your due date. Typically, one day of fasting will not put you into labor if your baby is not ready, but you don't want to risk your health or the health of your baby. If you have any concerns prior to Yom Kippur or other fast day, please talk to a rabbi. It can help to know in advance what guidelines you should follow if you develop any problems during the fast.

I am 34 weeks pregnant and will be fasting this Saturday. I fasted last year while nursing a toddler, and the year before that while nursing a newborn. The year before that, I was nursing a toddler, and the year before that, I was nursing a nine-month-old. And the year before that, I was pregnant. I successfully fasted every time. I think what's harder than the fast itself is caring for your kids while you fast. They still need to eat, they need your attention, they need to be entertained. If you have access to babysitting or a non-fasting helper on that day, take advantage of it! Most synagogues do offer a children's program for the High Holidays. Be sure to rest when you can, and sit down if you need to. You can also explain to your older children that it is harder for you to be patient and energetic today because you are very hungry. Hopefully, they'll cut you some slack.

May you have an easy fast, and g'mar hatimah tovah!

1 comment:

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