Breastfeeding is regarded by health authorities across the world as being the most effective way to achieve optimal health and wellbeing for children, their mothers and their families, writes DR RAHMAT BIBI BAGUS.
ALLAH SWT has created a special, intimate bond between a mother and her child in such a manner that the two function as a dyad, two parts of a whole, even after the baby has been born. When a baby is born, so is a mother.
Biologically, emotionally and psychologically, infants communicate with their mothers and effect responses in their mothers that shape their present and future well-being. During pregnancy, the hormone prolactin helps to prepare the maternal brain for caregiving. Prolactin also has a calming and stress-releasing effect.
While giving birth, the mother releases another hormone, called oxytocin. This same hormone gets released into her milk and in her baby. Oxytocin is commonly known as the love hormone, helping mothers and babies to fall in love with each other straight after birth and every time a mother touches, kisses and breastfeeds her baby. Oxytocin has an amazing calming effect on both mother and baby and helps both with healing that is needed after birth. Similar to prolactin, it has a stress-reducing and anti-anxiety effect on the maternal and infant brain, which persists for as long as breastfeeding continues, and helps to build emotional resilience in the baby’s brain.
Allah has placed shifaa in a mother’s milk. Breastmilk is full of germ-fighting, immune properties. When a mother kisses her baby’s hands, skin or mouth, she becomes familiar with bacteria on the baby’s body; when she breastfeeds, some of the baby’s saliva backwashes and enters her breast and body, and stimulates an immune response in the mother. At the next breastfeed, she produces specific antibodies and other protective substances to protect her baby against whatever bugs the baby may have been exposed to. Secretory IgA is one of the main antibodies found in breastmilk. The amazing quality of this antibody is that it passes over in quantities far higher than is present in the mother’s own bloodstream.
This maternal, altruistic act of breastfeeding offers multitudes of protection for her own health as well. Breastfeeding helps to lower maternal blood pressure and helps to reset gestational diabetes. Longer-term breastfeeding offers mothers protection from breast cancer and future metabolic diseases. And yet, every year, mothers who are breastfeeding ask themselves if they should discontinue breastfeeding in order to fast during the month of Ramadaan.
Allah has bestowed a grace on breastfeeding mothers to not fast, if they are concerned for the wellbeing of their child or are worried about their own health and wellbeing. It is wrong to ignore this kindness by fasting when she does not have to. However, if she feels well and has no concerns regarding her own or her baby’s health then she is to complete her fard duty of fasting.
She can be guided along this decision by considering her own health, nutritional status, the age of her baby, whether her baby is exclusively breastfeeding or has already started solid foods, the health of her baby, her support structures and added responsibilities, for example, whether she also works outside the home, whether she has other children to care for.
The decision regarding fasting or not fasting while breastfeeding is hers alone to make. Comments from loving aunts saying, ‘I fasted while breastfeeding all three of my children. Why can’t you?’ are not helpful, and are lacking in compassion for a mother who is already trying her best to fulfil her responsibilities in multiple roles that women usually execute.
When asked for guidance on this topic every year from breastfeeding mothers, I offer the following suggestions (see graphic):
Research shows that the breastmilk from fasting mothers contains all the macro-ingredients your baby needs (e.g. protein, fats and carbohydrates) and only small amounts of trace elements, like zinc, potassium and magnesium may be reduced. Research also confirms that the growth of babies whose mothers are fasting is not affected.
Your body will produce sufficient milk while fasting but, at times, this may take a nutritional toll on your own health. It is therefore sensible to break your fast if you feel unwell. Some mothers try fasting alternate days, or one out of three or four days. Listen to your body and trust what Allah has planned for you. You need to do what is right for yourself and your baby. Children grow up, and your opportunity to fast will come again. Every baby is different and every breastfeeding experience different, so your subsequent experiences may well be different. There are many other ways of increasing ibaadah; nurturing your child through breastfeeding is also a form of ibaadah.
Mothers are shaping the brains of the next generation; breastfeeding is an essential component of this task, and they need to feel supported by their husbands, parents, family and community. So, what can fathers, families and friends offer?
Offer to help with cleaning the house, wash the dishes, help with the cooking, help with the grocery shopping, help with tending for other young children, hold the baby so that the mother has an opportunity to take a shower. Reach out to organisations that offer breastfeeding help like La Leche League South Africa (lllsa.org) or call a qualified lactation consultant. Realise that you are also helping to shape the brains of the new generation by supporting this mother in her breastfeeding journey.
Dr Rahmat Bibi Bagus is a general practitioner and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant.