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." (2:233)
Given the importance of breastfeeding in the Islamic religion, the low rates of compliance among Muslim women in North America are puzzling. Although a formal research study has not been conducted, it seems upon observation that the breastfeeding rate among Muslim women is actually lower than among the population at large. 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 and home schooling. 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 not frowned upon, and it is rarely something people even question. 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. Perhaps it is a misunderstanding of the meaning of weaning.
Understood in the general sense, weaning means the gradual transfer from feeding the baby exclusively breast-milk to table foods only. This can happen sometime during the toddler period of life, usually between the ages of 1 and 3. 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. It has been proven that a bottle-fed baby will be a weaker child, and that breastfed babies often have higher IQ's and are more emotionally well adjusted.
In Islamic terms, weaning is a process that is administered by mutual consent, with the full intention of both parents who have decided that this is the best thing for the family. But in my conversations with sisters in various states who had given up nursing in favor of bottle-feeding, the sense is a feeling 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. This is a result of multi-million dollar deals between hospitals and 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 and therefore are not able to question the nurses, come home with their babies already addicted to the bottle. Although at this point, all is not yet beyond hope, coaxing a newborn child 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 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.
So many women have given up nursing out of a feeling of powerlessness to get the baby to nurse. Because this is not a decision to wean, but rather the result of lack of adequate help, this situation cannot simply be dismissed under the heading, "there is no blame." 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. It also points to a fundamental lack of self-esteem in the mothers, that already at the age of 4 days old, she is allowing the child to make important decisions that will hurt him, rather than taking command of the situation and turning it around. 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. 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 practice a bit of "tough love," to refuse to give the baby a bottle, even if it takes several hours for the baby to nurse willingly. (If the baby gets dehydrated, he can take water with a cup or medicine dropper). All this requires the support and help of the father 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.
Many Muslim women manage to make it through those hardest days in the beginning and then give up breastfeeding after the baby is less than 6 months old. The most common reason given is, "I was afraid I wasn't producing enough milk." At this point, a lactation advisor could have told her to increase her own consumption of calories and to get adequate rest. Under no circumstances should she give the baby a bottle because this will only decrease her supply of breast-milk. But it is so rare for Muslim women to seek advice further than their doctors, who often do not give adequate help. Sometimes it is actually the doctor's advice to start feeding their babies solids at age 3 months that leads to problems. Only with independent research will a mother be able to compare the "fun" of spoon-feeding her infant versus the risks of premature rejection of the breast.
How can we help the Muslim women of today to understand that Allah has made her able to feed her baby with the milk of her body? She needs to read books about breastfeeding and understand fully the commitment she is facing. She needs encouragement to seek help from a LaLeche League Leader or midwife if she runs into problems getting help from her doctor. Help is available. Women who receive adequate counseling are often able to sustain nursing even after returning to work outside the home. Premature infants can and should be breastfeed for the best odds in life. In fact, women who have never even been pregnant can actually stimulate the production of breast-milk for a foster child through the use of a special infant feeding device. 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. It will not simply be a tragic mistake to look back on with regret.