BREASTFEEDING IN SCRIPTURE
Many religious texts and teachings mention breastfeeding, whether in passing through a story or by outlining specific guidelines.
Below you will find some examples from the Old and New testaments of the Bible, the Qur’an, Buddhist customs, the Torah and
other Jewish texts, and Hindu literature.
From the Old Testament:
By the God of your father who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb.
When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” Then his sister said to the Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” And the Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. And the Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him.
1 Samuel 1:21-24
The man Elkanah and all his house went up to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice and to pay his vow. But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, so that he may appear in the presence of the Lord and dwell there forever.” Elkanah her husband said to her, “Do what seems best to you; wait until you have weaned him; only, may the Lord establish his word.” So the woman remained and nursed her son until she weaned him. And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine, and she brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh. And the child was young.
Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
Lord, my heart is not proud; my eyes are not haughty. I didn’t concern myself with matters too great or too awesome for me to grasp. Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself, like a weaned child who no longer cries for its mother’s milk. Yes, like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the Lord – now and always.
Song of Solomon 8:1
Oh that you were like a brother to me who nursed at my mother’s breasts! If I found you outside, I would kiss you, and none would despise me.
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
Isaiah 66: 10-13
“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her; that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance.” For thus says the Lord: “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”
Even jackals offer the breast; they nurse their young, but the daughter of my people has become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness.
The tongue of the nursing infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst; the children beg for food, but no one gives to them.
Gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.
From the New Testament:
As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!”
1 Thessalonians 2:7
But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
1 Peter 2:2
Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation–
From the Tanakh:
ווַתִּפְתַּח וַתִּרְאֵהוּ אֶת הַיֶּלֶד וְהִנֵּה נַעַר בֹּכֶה וַתַּחְמֹל עָלָיו וַתֹּאמֶר מִיַּלְדֵי הָעִבְרִים זֶה:
זוַתֹּאמֶר אֲחֹתוֹ אֶל בַּת פַּרְעֹה הַאֵלֵךְ וְקָרָאתִי לָךְ אִשָּׁה מֵינֶקֶת מִן הָעִבְרִיֹּת וְתֵינִק לָךְ אֶת הַיָּלֶד:
חוַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ בַּת פַּרְעֹה לֵכִי וַתֵּלֶךְ הָעַלְמָה וַתִּקְרָא אֶת אֵם הַיָּלֶד:
טוַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ בַּת פַּרְעֹה הֵילִיכִי אֶת הַיֶּלֶד הַזֶּה וְהֵינִקִהוּ לִי וַאֲנִי אֶתֵּן אֶת שְׂכָרֵךְ וַתִּקַּח הָאִשָּׁה הַיֶּלֶד וַתְּנִיקֵהוּ:
She opened [it], and she saw him the child, and behold, he was a weeping lad, and she had compassion on him, and she said, “This is [one] of the children of the Hebrews.” His sister said to the Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call for you a wet nurse from the Hebrew women, so that she shall nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go!” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse him for me, and I will give [you] your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him.
Shmuel I 1:21- 24
כאוַיַּעַל הָאִישׁ אֶלְקָנָה וְכָל בֵּיתוֹ לִזְבֹּחַ לַיהֹוָה אֶת זֶבַח הַיָּמִים וְאֶת נִדְרוֹ:
כבוְחַנָּה לֹא עָלָתָה כִּי אָמְרָה לְאִישָׁהּ עַד יִגָּמֵל הַנַּעַר וַהֲבִאֹתִיו וְנִרְאָה אֶת פְּנֵי יְהֹוָה וְיָשַׁב שָׁם עַד עוֹלָם:
כגוַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ אֶלְקָנָה אִישָׁהּ עֲשִֹי הַטּוֹב בְּעֵינַיִךְ שְׁבִי עַד גָּמְלֵךְ אֹתוֹ אַךְ יָקֵם יְהֹוָה אֶת דְּבָרוֹ וַתֵּשֶׁב הָאִשָּׁה וַתֵּינֶק אֶת
בְּנָהּ עַד גָּמְלָהּ אֹתוֹ:
כדוַתַּעֲלֵהוּ עִמָּהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר גְּמָלַתּוּ בְּפָרִים שְׁלשָׁה וְאֵיפָה אַחַת קֶמַח וְנֵבֶל יַיִן וַתְּבִאֵהוּ בֵית יְהֹוָה שִׁלוֹ וְהַנַּעַר נָעַר:
And the man, Elkanah and his entire household, went up to slaughter to the Lord, the sacrifice of the days and his vow. But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband: “Until the child is weaned, then I shall bring him, and he shall appear before the Lord, and abide there forever. And Elkanah her husband said to her: “Do what seems good to you. Stay until you have weaned him, only, may the Lord fulfill His word.” And the woman stayed and nursed her son, until she weaned him. And she brought him with her when she had weaned him, with three bulls, and one ephah of meal, and an earthenware jug of wine, and she brought him to the house of the Lord, to Shiloh, and the child was young.
טוהֲתִשְׁכַּח אִשָּׁה עוּלָהּ מֵרַחֵם בֶּן בִּטְנָהּ גַּם אֵלֶּה תִשְׁכַּחְנָה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ:
Shall a woman forget her suckling child, from having mercy on the child of her womb? These too shall forget, but I will not forget you.
Yeshayahu 66: 10-13
ישִׂמְחוּ אֶת יְרוּשָׁלִַם וְגִילוּ בָהּ כָּל אֹהֲבֶיהָ שִׂישׂוּ אִתָּהּ מָשׂוֹשׂ כָּל הַמִּתְאַבְּלִים עָלֶיהָ:
יאלְמַעַן תִּינְקוּ וּשְׂבַעְתֶּם מִשֹּׁד תַּנְחֻמֶיהָ לְמַעַן תָּמֹצּוּ וְהִתְעַנַּגְתֶּם מִזִּיז כְּבוֹדָהּ:
יבכִּי כֹה | אָמַר יְהֹוָה הִנְנִי נֹטֶה אֵלֶיהָ כְּנָהָר שָׁלוֹם וּכְנַחַל שׁוֹטֵף כְּבוֹד גּוֹיִם וִינַקְתֶּם עַל צַד תִּנָּשֵׂאוּ וְעַל בִּרְכַּיִם
יגכְּאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר אִמּוֹ תְּנַחֲמֶנּוּ כֵּן אָנֹכִי אֲנַחֶמְכֶם וּבִירוּשָׁלִַם תְּנֻחָמוּ:
Rejoice with Jerusalem and exult in her all those who love her: rejoice with her a rejoicing, all who mourn over her. In order that you suck and become sated from the breast of her consolations in order that you drink deeply and delight from her approaching glory. For so says the Lord, “Behold, I will extend peace to you like a river, and like a flooding stream the wealth of the nations, and you shall suck thereof; on the side you shall be borne, and on knees you shall be dandled. Like a man whose mother consoles him, so will I console you, and in Jerusalem, you shall be consoled.”
טזאִסְפוּ עָם קַדְּשׁוּ קָהָל קִבְצוּ זְקֵנִים אִסְפוּ עוֹלָלִים וְיוֹנְקֵי שָׁדָיִם יֵצֵא חָתָן מֵחֶדְרוֹ וְכַלָּה מֵחֻפָּתָהּ:
Gather the people, prepare the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the infants and the sucklings; let a bridegroom come out of his chambers and a bride from her canopy.
יכִּי אַתָּה גֹחִי מִבָּטֶן מַבְטִיחִי עַל שְׁדֵי אִמִּי:
For You drew me from the womb; You made me secure on my mother’s breasts.
אשִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת לְדָוִד יְהֹוָה | לֹא גָבַהּ לִבִּי וְלֹא רָמוּ עֵינַי וְלֹא הִלַּכְתִּי | בִּגְדֹלוֹת וּבְנִפְלָאוֹת מִמֶּנִּי:
באִם לֹא שִׁוִּיתִי | וְדוֹמַמְתִּי נַפְשִׁי כְּגָמֻל עֲלֵי אִמּוֹ כַּגָּמֻל עָלַי נַפְשִׁי:
גיַחֵל יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל יְהֹוָה מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עוֹלָם:
A song of ascent by David. O Lord, my heart was not haughty, nor were my eyes raised on high, and I did not pursue matters greater and more wondrous than I. I swear that I calmed and quieted my soul like a suckling on its mother; like a suckling was my soul with me. Israel, hope to the Lord from now to eternity.
Shir Hashirim 8:1
אמִי יִתֶּנְךָ כְּאָח לִי יוֹנֵק שְׁדֵי אִמִּי אֶמְצָאֲךָ בַחוּץ אֶשָּׁקְךָ גַּם לֹא יָבֻזוּ לִי:
“O, that you were like my brother, who sucked my mother’s breasts! I would find you outside, I would kiss you, and they would not despise me.”
גגַּם תַּנִּים (כתיב תַּנִּין) חָלְצוּ שַׁד הֵינִיקוּ גּוּרֵיהֶן בַּת עַמִּי לְאַכְזָר כַּיְעֵנִים (כתיב כַּיְ עֵנִים) בַּמִּדְבָּר:
דדָּבַק לְשׁוֹן יוֹנֵק אֶל חִכּוֹ בַּצָּמָא עוֹלָלִים שָׁאֲלוּ לֶחֶם פֹּרֵשׂ אֵין לָהֶם:
Even the sea-monsters offer the breast [and] suckle their young; the daughter of my people has become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness. The tongue of the suckling child cleaves to his palate through thirst; the young children beg [for] bread, [but] no one breaks it for them.
From other texts and teachings:
Mishnah, Ketubot 5:5
“These are the [kinds of] work which the woman [is obligated to] do for her husband. She grinds, and bakes, and washes [clothes]. She cooks, and nurses her child. She makes his bed, and work with wool.”
Pesikta Rabati 43
“At the time that Sarah gave birth to Isaac, the nations of the world said, ‘He is the child of the maidservant, and she is pretending to nurse him.’ In this moment, Abraham said to Sarah, ‘Why are you standing there? This is not the time for modesty. Instead, get up and undress yourself for the purpose of kedushat hashem [sanctification of the divine name].’ Sarah stood up and undressed, and her two breasts were spraying milk like two spouts of water … The nations of the world brought their sons to Sarah so that she would nurse them, to fulfill what is said, ‘Sarah would nurse children.’ Some of them brought their children in good faith so that she would nurse them, and some brought them in order to check [that she was really nursing]. Neither were denied.
“Rabbi Levi said, ‘Those who came in good faith converted.’ This is what is meant by ‘Sarah nursed children’. What is ‘nursed children’? ‘They became children of Israel.’ “And about those who came to check her, our rabbis said that they were elevated in this world. And all of the converts in the world, and all of the Godfearers in the world are descended from those who nursed from Sarah’s milk.” [translation by Rabbi Jill Jacobs]
P’sikta Zutarta Bamidbar Behalot’kha
Just as with the breast, which changes to take on many tastes, so too the manna turned into whatever food they wanted. Just as with the breast, the baby suffers when s/he separates from it, so too Israel suffered when separating from the manna.
Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid
“A mother should begin nursing her baby on the left side first, for that is the place closest to the heart.”
والوالدات يرضعن اولادهن حولين كاملين لمن اراد ان يتم الرضاعة وعلى المولود له رزقهن وكسوتهن بالمعروف لا تكلف نفس الا وسعها لا تضار والدة بولدها ولا مولود له بولده وعلى الوارث مثل ذلك فان ارادا فصالا عن تراض منهما وتشاور فلا جناح عليهما وان اردتم ان تسترضعوا اولادكم فلا جناح عليكم اذا سلمتم ما اتيتم بالمعروف واتقوا الله واعلموا ان الله بما تعملون بصير
Mothers may breastfeed their children two complete years for whoever wishes to complete the nursing [period]. Upon the father is the mothers’ provision and their clothing according to what is acceptable. No person is charged with more than his capacity. No mother should be harmed through her child, and no father through his child. And upon the [father’s] heir is [a duty] like that [of the father]. And if they both desire weaning through mutual consent from both of them and consultation, there is no blame upon either of them. And if you wish to have your children nursed by a substitute, there is no blame upon you as long as you give payment according to what is acceptable. And fear Allah and know that Allah is Seeing of what you do.
ووصينا الانسان بوالديه حملته امه وهنا على وهن وفصاله في عامين ان اشكر لي ولوالديك الي المصير
And We have enjoined upon man [care] for his parents. His mother carried him, [increasing her] in weakness upon weakness, and his weaning is in two years. Be grateful to Me and to your parents; to Me is the [final] destination.
Breastfeeding in Ramadan
شَهْرُ رَمَضَانَ الَّذِي أُنزِلَ فِيهِ الْقُرْآنُ هُدًى لِّلنَّاسِ وَبَيِّنَاتٍ مِّنَ الْهُدَىٰ وَالْفُرْقَانِ ۚ فَمَن شَهِدَ مِنكُمُ الشَّهْرَ فَلْيَصُمْهُ ۖ وَمَن كَانَ مَرِيضًا أَوْ عَلَىٰ سَفَرٍ فَعِدَّةٌ مِّنْ أَيَّامٍ أُخَرَ ۗ يُرِيدُ اللَّهُ بِكُمُ الْيُسْرَ وَلَا يُرِيدُ بِكُمُ الْعُسْرَ وَلِتُكْمِلُوا الْعِدَّةَ وَلِتُكَبِّرُوا اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ مَا هَدَاكُمْ وَلَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ
The month of Ramadhan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; And whoever is ill or on a journey, the same number [of days which one did not observe Sawm (fasts) must be made up] from other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful.
*According to many scholars, pregnant and nursing women are considered to be included in the category of those who are ill, if fasting causes them hardship*
Islamic Judicial Resources (Fatwa) on Breastfeeding in Ramadan
- Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America: Fatwa on fasting related questions
- Islam Questions and Answers: Ruling on fasting for pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers
Buddhism and Breastfeeding
“During the Edo period (1603–1867), the custom of intentionally breastfeeding children until 6 or 7 years of age existed in order to improve children’s health, as opposed to extended breastfeeding without any purpose. It wasn’t that the same biological mother would continue to breastfeed the infant; a wet nurse was hired when the baby was about 2 years old, and then she would continue breastfeeding till the baby was about 7.” (pg. 127)
“One reason extended breastfeeding was intentionally practiced until 7 years of age was the high infant mortality rate of the day; as an old Japanese saying goes, “Children belong to the gods until 7 [children were a presence belonging to the world of gods, not this world].” (pg. 127)
Source: Segawa, M. (2008). Buddhism and breastfeeding. Breastfeeding Medicine,3(2), 124-128.
Mahāvastu’s version of Kṣāntivādin
“The king cut off the seer’s finger with the blade of his sword, and from the seer’s finger, milk flowed, just as a mother’s milk flows from her breasts out of love for her son [emphasis added]. And in just the same way, he whose mind was benevolent toward all beings had all five fingers from each of his hands cut off, one by one, and in each case, milk gushed forth.” (pg. 175)
Source: Ohnuma R. Ties That Bind: Maternal Imagery And Discourse in Indian Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2012.
On the importance of breastfeeding:
“In the earliest Indian literature, the Vedas mention that milk and breast are symbolic of longevity and nectarine sweetness. The breast has been conceived as a pitcher full of nectar (Atharva Veda). The Yajurveda (verse 17/87) reflects: ‘Drink in the middle of the flood, O Agni, this breast stored full of sap, teeming with water. Welcome this fountain redolent of sweetness. O courser, enter those thy watery dwelling.’ The Charak Samhita (verses 8/52:957, 8/46:950) depicts the importance of breastfeeding, and the Kashyap Samhita describes the qualities of breast milk. Breast milk has been thought to have great powers. Its lifegiving powers are highlighted in select quotations from the religious texts.”
“Shiva, the god of destruction, as well as the lord of cattle, yogis, and asceticism, grants his wife, the goddess Parvati, her wish for a son by creating a baby boy from part of her dress. Despite Parvati’s skepticism, the baby Ganesh comes to life when Parvati puts him to her breast.”
“Sushruta Samhita describes the power of breast milk. ‘May four oceans, full of milk, constantly abide in both your breasts, you blessed one, for the increase of the strength of the child! Drinking of the milk, whose sap is the sap of immortal life divine, may your baby gain long life, as do the gods by feeding on the beverage of immortality!’ (Susruta, III, 10).”
Source: Laroia, N. and Sharma, D. (2006). The religious and cultural bases for breastfeeding practices among the Hindus. Breastfeeding Medicine,1(2), 94-98.
*Please tell us of any other references to breastfeeding in religious texts and teachings you know.
We are always looking to expand our information!