By Hwaa Irfan
Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was born at a time when it was customary among the wealthy of the Quraysh tribe to have their babies nursed by Bedouins around Makkah. It was believed that a Bedouin wet-nurse gave a strong physical constitution to the child, as well as the easy manners of the desert Arabs. The free open-air life of the desert and a clean and healthy environment clean for the mother contributed towards the provision of a complete and nourishing food…milk. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) gained much from the milk of his wet-nurse, Halima.
So it no surprise that research keeps on declaring what many know to be true, like the recent study of Greek researchers led by Professor Emmanouil Galanakis. They found that to exclusively breastfeed one’s child for a period of 6 months to be the best defense against infection, containing diseases fighting antibodies and immunological nutritional factors being passed from mother to child. Mixed feeding i.e. breast and bottle, just did not compare; neither did vaccination programs nor being under a good healthcare program! Allah (SWT) provided us with all we need, despite our denial.
The researchers found that the special composition of mother’s milk provides the necessary protection for the infant. They tracked 926 infants for 12 months recording any common infections that might occur. Newborns under a vaccination program were under a high standard of healthcare. Only two-thirds of the mothers’ breastfed for the first month of life, but overall 91 infants were exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of their lives. The exclusively breastfed infants caught fewer common infections in their first year of life, whilst the others, both vaccinated and mix-fed caught respiratory infections and thrush amongst others. When the exclusively breastfed infants did get an infection, it was less severe, and they were able to recover more quickly than their counterparts.
Breastfeeding is an important period of bonding between mother and child. The process of breast-feeding, soothes the baby – new to the strange noises, smells and sensations of this world. It brings warmth, love, and security to the new child; but just as importantly, it brings complete nutrition, immunity and health protection. This is because breast milk, Allah’s intended food for babies, is nature’s perfect “formula”. Man-made formulas will never replace what Allah has created.
Breast milk allows the baby’s immune and digestive systems to develop and be nourished before the baby begins taking on more complex foods. It also provides increased immunity.
So far, scientists have divided the not-completely-understood agents of human milk into three categories:
1. Germ fighters
2. Inflammation Soothers
3. Immune System Enhancers.
Breast milk composition even changes throughout the day and the baby’s growth in order to fit the needs of the child. For instance, a mother with a premature baby has different milk, more suited for her child’s needs, than a mother who gives birth to a full-term baby.
Formula baby foods can never reproduce this quality that Allah (SWT) has blessed women with. Cow’s milk, often the base of man-made formulas, frequently causes lactose-intolerance. In fact, very few populations remain able to tolerate lactose; and the ones who are tolerant are populations that have had to rely on the milk of their herds for food under difficult environments. However, over 70% of African, Chinese, Japanese, Ashkenazi Jews and Mediterraneans have lost their lactose tolerance ability. In the U.S. up to 25% of Caucasians are lactose intolerant. There also seems to be a relationship between colic in breast-fed infants and the cows’ milk drunk by their mothers. Furthermore, many children are allergic to the alternative soy-based formulas recently being sold; many minerals and vitamins are hard for babies to digest in synthetic form. For instance, the minerals zinc and iron are easier to absorb when taken in human milk.
The ratio of phosphorus and calcium in cow’s milk makes it difficult to digest properly. The ratio of calcium to phosphorus in human milk is 2.35:1 but the ratio is 1.27 in cow’s milk. Frank Oski of the Department of Pediatrics at Upstate Medical Center, State University of New York in Syracuse said:
“Only foods with a calcium-to-phosphorus ratio of 2-1 or better should be used as primary source of calcium.” Phosphorus can combine with calcium in the digestive tract and actually prevent the absorption of calcium. Therefore, humans absorb less calcium from the high-calcium cow’s milk than from the lower-calcium human milk”.
Perhaps this is why studies consistently show that nursed children are healthier in general, suffering less from allergies, eczema, diarrhea, and skin disorders due to the immunity factor in human milk. In places like the Chinese province of Hubei, babies are taller and weigh more the longer they are breast-fed. Breast milk also contains antibodies to protect babies against salmonella, E. Coli, candida and botulism; and help in the defense against polio and respiratory infections. Antimicrobes in human milk ease inflammation and fight bacteria, whereas cow’s milk in humans nurtures harmful bacteria.
A study by a Finnish scientist used 237 healthy children to discover that the longer an infant was nursed the fewer ear infections they had. This fact was taken even further if the child received no supplementation other than mothers’ milk. When a baby is taken off human milk and given formula, an allergy may develop to the cow’s milk in the formula. Sometimes, cow’s milk irritates the Eustachian tube that connects the ear to the throat. Researchers have also noticed that people who were breast-fed as infants are less likely to get diabetes, Crohn’s disease (a digestive disorder) and some types of cancer.
Obesity is another health problem that is less prevalent in breast-fed babies. Recent research by Matthew Gillman looked at 15,000 children and found that there is a lower risk of being overweight by age 14 in breast fed children. Gillman’s logical explanation was that babies who breast-fed regularly regulated their own food intake and stopped eating when were full; while a bottle-fed baby may continue to eat more, feeding until the bottle is empty. One can liken human milk to organic/fresh foods that provide more bulk in the stomach; whereas formula is more like processed foods that don’t satisfy the hunger because they provide less bulk. Gillman also found that the mother’s weight played a role. Thinner mothers were more likely than heavy mothers to breast-feed, and for longer periods.
British researchers found that, in addition to better health, mother’s milk increases IQ’s. They tracked 300 children until they were seven or eight years old. Children who were nursed had IQ’s 8.3 points higher than formula fed babies.
The importance of maternity leave cannot be underestimated for the 1st year of a child’s life at least. However it is the mothers of certain Middle Easter countries like Egypt, where nursing mothers do best, because they are not excluded from the public. Many western and increasingly non-western countries have developed a schizoid approach to the nursing of infants, as a result of objectifying the woman’s body purely as a tool of pleasure. As a result one will not find mothers nursing their infants as nature intended other than in the home. Unlike in the Middle East where facilities like women only transport, allows for women to feel free to nurse their children. The consequence is that women have increasingly view their bodies that must be kept in “good shape” as a tool of pleasure, and/or they develop a complex about their bodies are for.
Current debate in the U.K. asks the question as to how to make breastfeeding a normal process. It is however not enough to expect health experts, and doctors to advise mothers of the newborn, when the socio-cultural dynamics works against such a possibility. At the same time any advice has to bear this in mind, and rather put pressure on mothers to go against the mis-perceptions of their own body, health counseling for both mother and father might initiate a better outcome, as often the other source of the problem is the husband.
Referring to the research led by Galanakis, Janet Fyle of the Royal College of Midwives responded recently as follows to the BBC:
“This research is very welcome and adds to the growing weight of evidence about the many benefits of breastfeeding.
“We know that breastfeeding is the default method of infant feeding for babies; good for mothers and good for the health of the nation. That is why we need to continue our efforts to ensure that we maintain a high rate of breastfeeding in the UK.
“The UK needs to see breastfeeding as a normal process, and to move away from some of the outdated and negative stigma that is depressingly still attached to it, specifically breastfeeding in public.”
We try to provide the best we can and make the most of what Allah (SWT) blessed us with. Therefore we should continue that effort, especially when it is in the best interests of our children.
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Bashier, Z. “The Makkan Crucible.” Britain: The Islamic Foundation. 1991.
Breastfeeding Prevents Baby Infections Research Suggests. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-11417490
Colbie, A. “Food & Healing.” US: Ballantine Books. 1996.
El-Geyoushi, M. I. “The Life of the Prophet. Vol:1.” Britain: Alam Printing Services. 1986.
McKeown, L, A. “Breastfeeding May Protect Kids From Obesity.”Health WebMD. http://content.health.msn.com/content/article/1728.79778