The Qur’an (2:233) says, “And the mothers should suckle their children for two whole years for him who desires to make complete the time of suckling; and their maintenance and their clothing must be borne by the father according to usage. No soul shall have imposed upon it a duty but to the extent of its capacity; neither shall a mother be made to suffer harm on account of her child, nor a father on account of his child. And a similar duty (devolves) on the (father’s) heir, but if both desire weaning by mutual consent and counsel, there is no blame on them, and if you wish to engage a wet-nurse for your children, there is no blame on you so long as you pay what you promised for according to usage; and be careful of (your duty to) Allah and know that Allah sees what you do.”
Nursing a newborn baby is seen is Islam as the natural duty of the mother, or in the case that she is unable, of a wet nurse. Many experts, in fact, cite this surah when they speak of the duties of women in Islam.
However, the benefits of nursing a child extend far beyond this one verse from Qur’an. Breastfeeding fulfills many requirements, as hinted at in the above verse. It benefits the mother’s health, enabling her to perform her household duties more efficiently; provides better health to infants, enabling the healthier development of Muslim child; and cuts down on healthcare and nutritional expenses (less expensive than bottle feeding). Nursing also protects against disease in developing countries – all important issues in the Muslim community, as we will see below.
First and foremost, many mothers choose to nurse simply because it is the easiest thing to do. Although many women experience initial difficulties, once they are overcome within the first ten days or so, most women find that nursing makes their life much easier. Instead of the house being run by the new baby, as is often the case following a new birth, the mother is able to take care of the infant as well as her other duties around the house. Nursing saves mothers the work of sterilizing bottles; choosing, measuring and making formula; sitting to hold the bottle for infants, and getting up at night to heat bottles. In many cases, the mother is able to hold and nurse her baby in a sling while she is shopping, working, or taking care of other children.
Nursing also helps new mothers lose weight more easily as more calories are burned during milk production.
Nursing promotes better health in children for many reasons, but the consensus is that the main reason is that man cannot mimic the protein and nutrients that Allah has provided in a mother’s milk. Even more of them are being discovered each year. Just a month ago, yet another nutrient was found – a soluble protein called C14 which stimulates the development of B cells, immune cells made in the bone marrow and key to the production of antibodies.
Dr. Michael Julius of the University of Toronto and Toronto Hospital who led the study said, “Over the last decades, the scientific basis for this conventional wisdom has increased due to our identification of many of the elements of breast milk that mediate all these good things. In addition to being full of nutrients, in addition to being full of growth factors, it is full of things that protect the newborn.”
The devastating effects of substituting cow’s milk for human milk are most evident in developing countries. Human milk is rich in all the nutrients that the human body requires for proper development. Cow’s milk passes on many of these same benefits to calves; however, because its nutrients and immunology factors are specifically suited for calves, it is a mismatch for humans. As well, once cow’s milk is processed, its immunology factors are destroyed. It is even more harmful when one considers the amount of pollutants that are found in cow’s milk formula in the form of white sugar, synthetic hormones, heavy metals (from the cans it comes in) and preservatives.
In Brazil, where medical care is not readily available, an artificially fed baby is 14 times more likely to die than an exclusively breast fed baby, and at least four times more likely to die than an infant receiving both mother’s milk and formula. In Pakistan, a largely Muslim country, advocates for nursing are very outspoken.
Developing countries, however, have another concern with the increase in formula-fed children. Exclusive nursing actually helps to curb overpopulation by postponing the return of a woman’s menses following childbirth. It is more successful in preventing conception than all other forms of contraception combined. Many countries are worried that their already overpopulated lands will be even more strained in the future. In Africa, nursing prevents an average of four births per woman; in Bangladesh, it prevents an average of 6.5. A study in Chile found that none of the exclusively nursing women became pregnant within six months of birth, compared to 72% of non-nursing women. Also, when survival rates are higher, as they are with breastfed children, birth rates naturally tend to be lower.
There are other concerns that Western nations, developing counties and all Muslims share. One is the issue of ecology and waste. The Qur’an (7:31) says, “Eat and drink, but waste not by excess, for God loves not the prodigals.” Bottle-feeding is an example of food waste and the waste of other natural resources. The Qur’an (20:8 1) also says, “Eat of the good things We have provided for your, sustenance, but commit no excess therein.” Human milk is the ultimate in renewable resources. It is there as soon as the baby arrives in the quantity that the baby needs for as long as the mother and baby want it. In contrast, formula requires production in factories under strict hygienic situations, transportation by truck or plane to its destination, and the use of a large amount of packaging materials. A vast amount of natural resources are required for its production. For example, soybeans (used for soy formula) are a high-input crop, meaning that it requires the use of a lot of pesticides, fertilizer and land, which can create pollution. To top this off, formula is often beyond the budget of many mothers who may, out of ignorance, try to dilute or mix it with other fluids.
Human milk requires no transportation, only a little more food for the mother, and can stand covered in a clean container for up to six hours without becoming contaminated – even in warm climates. Its production creates no waste to be disposed of.
Typically, mothers (particularly Muslim mothers) given the correct information and the proper support naturally choose to nurse their children. It is primarily because of misinformation, the greed of formula manufacturing companies, and the disintegration of many cultures that this very natural tendency is repressed. When society encourages mothers to honor the guidance set forth in the Qur’an, they usually make “the ultimate choice” in nourishing their children.
By Karima Burns, MH, ND