May 5, 2011

A Mother's Milk: Why Do We Have Breastfeeding Issues?

Umm Sayf Sarah Zitterman is an American mother of three, with her fourth on the way inshaAllah, currently living in Jeddah, Saudia Arabia. She is a La Leche League Leader and an IBCLC Certified Lactation Consultant. 


Alhamdulillah. All Praise is to Allah. I praise Him and I seek His guidance. And I bear witness that there is no deity worthy of worship but the One True God, and that Mohammed, peace be upon him, is His final prophet and Messenger.

It has been clearly established that breastfeeding is an obligation of the Muslim mother. It is a right that her child has on her, and one that she may not forsake without an Islamically accepted excuse, such as a true medical problem that prevents her from doing so. In addition to that, we are, as mothers bombarded with information about the benefits of breastfeeding. There is no doubt that “breast is best”. But, despite all of this, we find many mothers, Muslim and otherwise, who stop breastfeeding before the two years prescribed by Allah are fulfilled because of problems they encounter and lack of support to overcome those problems.  Additionally, we find other mothers who do not attempt breastfeeding at all; from fear of encountering problems, assumptions that it will be too hard, and lack of support for the mother during this sometimes trying time.

It is true, breastfeeding is a completely natural act. It is the only way that the human species has survived, and was the only way human babies were fed – except an exceptional few – until the early 19th century. Despite this fact, we find that mothers and babies often experience difficulties breastfeeding, especially in the first few weeks but sometimes beyond that period as well. So, why is it that despite the fact that breastfeeding is itself completely natural, some women encounter many problems and bumps along the road to a happy successful breastfeeding relationship?

In times past, women were surrounded by other women and their babies. They may have seen their own mother nurse younger siblings, or perhaps their older sisters nursing their babies. Neighbors, aunts, grandmothers, all would have breastfed their children, and most women would have seen the breastfeeding relationship between mother and child develop at some point in their lives. And, when the time came for a woman to start her own family, she would likely have had many women in her life to turn to for advice if she did herself encounter problems breastfeeding her child. The nuclear family and extended family usually lived in close proximity to one another, and made knowledge about breastfeeding part of the cultural tradition that would have been passed from one woman to another much like the cooking of favorite cultural dishes was, and like favorite family recipes still are passed today from grandmother to mother and from mother to daughter.

In today's world, we find two major differences from this historical paradigm. One is that there are so many women who are NOT breastfeeding, or who simply quit when they encounter hurdles. Sometimes we find our mother's generation did not even attempt to breastfeed because of the formula companies' advertising, which, though now better regulated in much of the world, often led women of the past generation to believe that formula created in a lab was actually SUPERIOR to human milk. Astaghfirullah! So, even if extended family is close by, their advice may not help the new mother continue past these hurdles and into a successful breastfeeding relationship, and may sometimes even be detrimental! Another issue is that even if women in the new mother's family have breastfeeding experience, often extended families are spread out across not only the region but sometimes the entire world, making this knowledge unaccessible for the new mother.

So where can she turn? Who can she ask and get sound advice from if she does encounter breastfeeding hurdles? Now the Lactation professional (IBCLC), as well as the lay breastfeeding volunteer (La Leche League Leader, Peer Counselor, or other), have stepped up to fill that void. The new mother can attend support group meetings, call volunteer lactation support persons by phone, contact them by e-mail or in online forums, and even hire professional lactation consultants to help them. Additionally, many women across the world can access sound advice from internet sites and blogs like this one.

Insha'Allah in the weeks to come, we will address some of the most common breastfeeding issues that women encounter, and how we can overcome them. May Allah bring good to you and to us from this endeavor, and may He continue to bless the Muslim mothers everywhere in this ummah.  AMEEN.

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