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Fasting During Lent When Pregnant or Breastfeeding

A variation of the question comes up every year around this time in social media groups and on discussion boards geared toward Catholic women...

"I'm pregnant and/or nursing. Am I still supposed to fast?"

"I need to eat every couple hours in order to keep anything down, what should I do on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday?"

"I feel fine and like it's not a big deal for me to fast. I should still do it, right?"

The short answer?

Fasting and abstinence during Lent are not required if you are a pregnant or breastfeeding mother. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are exempt from the traditional fasting and abstinence requirements of Lent through the authority of our local bishops.

Can. 1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.

Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Can. 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.

Can. 1253 The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.

In light of that authority to determine the precise observance of fasting and abstinence, the United States bishops have said the following:

"Those that are excused from fast and abstinence outside the age limits include the physically or mentally ill including individuals suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes. Also excluded are pregnant or nursing women. In all cases, common sense should prevail, and ill persons should not further jeopardize their health by fasting."

If you are in another country and not under the jurisdiction of the United States dioceses, we can't speak to that specifically but you can certainly look into it through your local bishops conference. It's likely that there are similar dispensations in place.

Why are pregnant and breastfeeding women exempt from fasting and abstinence? We can first think of it as a way that the Church officially honors and recognizes the work of pregnancy and breastfeeding. This work is beautiful, important, valuable, and serves the least among us. As a woman bringing another image of God into the world, we uphold that time and set it apart as sacred and holy. Dispensing women from the penances of fasting and abstinence honors that work, and the sacrifices that are already happening to lay down one's life and body for another.

God also designed pregnancy and breastfeeding as a time that requires extra nourishment and care. Our caloric and nutritional needs are higher when pregnant and breastfeeding and it does not sanctify us or the Church to pretend that isn't so or to "muscle through" at the expense of our health or that of our babies. In fact doing so could actually be considered a form of pride and/or scrupulosity. For some women there is a necessary humility that can grow from accepting that this time is set apart, that they don't have to "prove" themselves, and they can simply receive the gift the Church is offering. Will not eating between meals for two days a year or abstaining from meat on Fridays be absolutely devastating to a pregnant or breastfeeding woman's health? No, likely not, especially in this day and age when we have access to an abundance of options and substitutes. But at the same time can we accept that the Church wants what is in the best interest of mothers and babies and not want to put any unnecessary burdens on them during this holy time? Can we practice joyful and humble receptivity of a gift being offered?

Of course, this dispensation isn't a license for overindulgence or ignoring the holy time of Lent, which is another vice on the opposite side of the spectrum that other women may fall into! The purpose of the required days of fasting and abstinence are to "help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart" according to Catechism 2043. We can still use these days, and Lent as a whole, to examine our own hearts and see what might be in need of transformation and conversion. A pregnant woman may very much physically and spiritually benefit from modifying and improving her diet to better care for herself and her baby and Lent might offer the necessary nudge to do so. But any devotions or penances taken on should still honor the needs of her baby and body during this time.

If a woman does personally feel called to somehow still fast or offer another sacrifice while pregnant or breastfeeding, that is something she can discern. Here are just a few of many ideas that may offer more benefit spiritually, mentally, and physically for her and her baby than the traditional fasts required during Lent:

  • Fast from screens or social media.

  • Choose to avoid all extra added sugars or sweets.

  • Fast from extra spices or choose blander foods that day (please don't cut out high quality salt as that's critical for pregnancy health).

  • Cut out other junk/processed food and replace with something more nourishing.

  • Fast from music/podcasts those days.

  • Limit any unnecessary shopping or spending.

  • Fast from makeup or a hot shower.

  • Use time that would normally be spent "off" for extra prayer, service to your family, or house cleaning.

Before deciding anything, absolutely pray through and submit any ideas to the Holy Spirit asking what He might want from you this Lent. The whole purpose of this season is to be more closely united to Our Lord and He wants to do that through your pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and motherhood, not in spite of it. Allow Him to be the One to show you the way that transformation can best happen. May this Lent be a time of deep union with Him, especially in these sacred seasons of so exemplifying His example of offering your very body and blood for the sake of your beloved.


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