Women wait with their infants at a hospital in Turkey. (BBC)
Breastfeeding may seem like the most natural thing in the world, but for a percentage of women it can be terribly challenging — especially if they cannot produce enough milk or refrain from breastfeeding due to medical reasons such as severe illness, accident, HIV infection, or taking certain medications that can harm the baby through breast milk.
As I’ve mentioned in another post on breastfeeding in Guinea, it’s widely accepted by health organizations that breast milk is the optimal food for infants and, when done exclusively, helps guard against infant mortality. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and continued breastfeeding for up to two years. But in cases where the mother cannot breastfeed, the WHO’s recommended choice of alternative is breast milk from a healthy wet-nurse or from a human milk bank.
There are currently 13 milk banks in North America, almost 200 banks in Europe, 210 in Brazil, and several hospital neonatal and intensive care unit-affiliated banks worldwide. Recently in a two-minute video, the BBC covered a new government milk bank in a Muslim majority country – set to open in the port city of Izmir, Turkey.
“If successful, this pilot will help feed babies whose mothers have passed away and help mothers who cannot produce enough breast milk.”
Despite the fact that health authorities have taken special care to recognize and address the religious conditions necessary for a milk bank to work within an Islamic context, the BBC stresses that the project could, “face resistance as traditional Islam forbids marriage between people who have been fed with milk from the same woman.”
Rooted in the Qur’an (4:23), fostering sibling kinship through breastfeeding has a long tradition in Muslim communities. Classical and contemporary Islamic legal discourse outlines the many ways this kinship is established – and includes a number of varying conditions, such as requiring a family familiar wet-nurse or none at all, the nursling feeding directly from the breast or from a cup, and that feedings instating kinship range from a one time deal, to 10 sessions before the infant reaches the age of two (source). Once fulfilled, regardless of legal differences of opinion requiring the bond, a milk kinship is permanent and bars marriage between milk siblings.
Unlike other milk bank initiatives found in so-called “Western” countries, the program in Turkey has additional conditions to help ensure the quality of the milk. A soundbite from the Minister of Health, Mehmet Müezzinoğlu, explains that donors and recipients will be paired — so that the milk from a volunteering mother always goes to the same infant. The milk will also be tested, and only consumed with the approval of both the donating mother and the infant’s legal guardians.