“The mothers shall give suck to their offspring for two whole years, if the father desires to complete the term. But he shall bear the cost of their food and clothing on equitable terms…If they both decide on weaning, by mutual consent, and after due consultation, there is no blame on them. If ye decide on a foster-mother for your offspring there is no blame on you, provided ye pay (her) what ye offered, on equitable terms. But fear Allah and know that Allah sees well what ye do.” (Quran 2:233)
Given the importance of breastfeeding in the Islamic religion, the relatively low rates of compliance among Muslim women in North America are puzzling. There are small pockets of “fundamentalist” Muslim women who are well educated and adamant about nursing their children under their chadors, and who often practice natural childbirth. However, those mothers who nurse their babies past the age of one year are the exception rather than the rule. There seems to be a lighthearted attitude among the general Muslim populace towards the bottle-feeding of infants. It is sometimes even thought of as more modest to bottle-feed! Perhaps it is a lack of education about the benefits of breastfeeding, combined with an absence of a support network to assist the new mother.
Transferring the child to animal and vegetable foods before he even had any teeth was not done by the early Muslims. The most likely option, if a mother declined to breastfeed her infant, was the employment of a wet-nurse for the child. For the newborn Muslim child, the intimate breastfeeding relationship is a right. It is beyond dispute that two full years of breast-milk provide a baby with long-term health benefits such as the prevention of ear infections and allergies, as well as providing a foundation of trust between mother and child. Scientific studies show that a bottle-fed baby will be a weaker child.
“Weaning” is the gradual transfer from feeding the baby exclusively breast-milk to table foods only. This happens sometime during the toddler period of life, usually between the ages of 1 and 3.
In Islamic terms, weaning is a process that is administered by mutual consent between parents. But in my conversations with sisters in various states who had given up nursing in favor of bottle-feeding, there is a sense of powerlessness over the situation. These mothers often wanted very much to nurse their child. But somehow, they lost their chance. This tragedy is largely caused by a hospital system that does little to promote exclusive breastfeeding of newborns. In most hospitals, the new mothers receive free samples of formula to take home, as a result of multi-million dollar deals with pharmaceutical companies who pay the doctors to promote their products. This practice is highly unethical because little or no education about the dangers of bottle-feeding the infant is given to the new mothers. Many Muslim mothers, especially those who don’t speak English well, come home with their babies already addicted to the bottle. Although at this point, all is not yet beyond hope, coaxing a small baby to breastfeed, after he has been bottle-fed even just once or twice, can be a big struggle. It may not succeed without the aid of a lactation counselor, because unfortunately, even the older generation of mothers and mothers-in-law often lack the knowledge of how to breastfeed. Thus, the likelihood of bottle-feeding is very high among immigrant and minority women in the U.S.
When women have given up nursing out of a feeling of powerlessness to get the baby to nurse, this is not a mutual parental decision to wean, but rather the result of lack of adequate help. Something is terribly wrong when Muslim women are giving up breastfeeding due to lack of education, counseling, and support. It reveals a stripping away at the postnatal rights of the Muslim woman to be in a state of rest for 40 days after childbirth.
If the child is rejecting the breast, the most common reaction is to try for a while, and then give up and give him a bottle, but this teaches him that all he has to do is fuss and refuse to nurse, and he will be rewarded by a free-flowing bottle of formula. The only solution to this power struggle is for the mother to refuse to give the baby a bottle, even if it takes several days for the baby to nurse willingly. (If the baby gets dehydrated, he can take water with a cup or medicine dropper). My eldest son was a sleepy baby, born a couple weeks early. I had to set my alarm for every three hours, take off his clothes and wipe him down with water to get him screaming mad, in order for him to just stay awake for a couple minutes to nurse before he would blissfully fall asleep in my arms. The first few days were terrifying and the emotional pressure was intense. After two weeks he finally opened his eyes, and he and I enjoyed a nursing relationship that lasted over two years. Nursing can be a strenuous effort that truly requires the full support and help of the father, neighbors and other family members, to allow the mother and child to be together undisturbed as much as possible for the first 40 days of the baby’s life.
Help is available. The ability to feed your child the best that nature has to offer is your choice. Only after a successful and long-lasting breastfeeding relationship can weaning the baby truly be done by mutual and conscious consent.
To locate a free breastfeeding consultant in your area, call 1-800-LA-LECHE
Karin Friedemann is a Boston-based freelance writer. karinfriedemann.blogspot.com This article was previously published under the pseudonym Maria Hussain. See also mariahussain.wordpress.com