breastfeeding


hgh

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 Europe210 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.

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photo 2 (3)Smooth indie pop mixed with the din of morning breakfasters — masking the Arabic and English conversations and adding a warm buzz to the many clinking tea cups. It was a cold morning and the wind off Kuwait’s Marina drove patio-goers indoors to the trendy cafés lining the water.

I was enjoying a Moroccan mint tea and nursing Ivy to sleep when I heard a testing, “Hello?”

Expecting guests, I looked up with a bright smile and instantly recognized Heba al-Ali, co-founder of BirthKuwait. Her colleague, a birth doula, gave a quick nudge and joked at me, “When I saw you breastfeeding, I knew you were one of us.”

The three of us had never met before — but a chance tweet and a couple of email exchanges later, there we were, talking all things maternal over poached eggs and organic bread.

BirthKuwait was created to better support mothers by advocating for healthy and natural birth, and to improve maternity services by making resources and information available to women. One and a half years ago, doula Sarah Paksima and midwife Zuzana Nadova spearheaded a plan to get professionals who were interested in maternal care — breastfeeding and natural birth — all together in one room. Health professionals, doulas, pediatricians, and members from the Ministry of Health’s Breastfeeding Promotion and Support Team entered into a discussion to move beyond just breastfeeding support and answer the question, what else was there to offer women in Kuwait?

Heba explained:

We wanted to offer monthly meetings to give out free information, and educate women so they can demand the changes in maternal health. We didn’t want to lecture the government or the hospitals to change — but to empower women to demand the change for themselves.

BirthKuwait is essentially helping to fill education gaps in breastfeeding support, prenatal care, unnecessary medical interventions during delivery and postnatal care that women in Kuwait might not receive from private or government hospitals. Unless someone actively seeks out information from their doctor or government clinics, it’s unlikely they will be made aware of  lactation consultants, childbirth preparation classes, or that the birth experience doesn’t have to include an episiotomy — a standard procedure in Kuwait.

I had read online that birth in Kuwait is a highly medicalized, hospital event and that midwifery isn’t a recognized profession. But I was still shocked to hear the opinion that doctors don’t know how to birth a child without an episiotomy and that women simply expect to receive one.

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Assalamu ‘alaikum wa rahmatulah…

My head turns to my right shoulder, giving peace and blessings to every person across the world, to the women sitting next to me in prayer, and to the angel who records my good deeds. It’s the end of the sunset prayer at the Al-Sharif Al Hussein Bin Ali Mosque in Aqaba, and I am struck into absolute stillness.

It’s only a flash. A fleeting moment while giving salaams. But in that half second I taste the sweetness of imaan — a heavy, Divine presence comforting me, reassuring me, embracing me. Time slows, and the post-prayer chaos moves beyond me.

I complete the prayer and instead of raising my hands in du’a, I look down the opening of my nursing cover. Ivy looks back up at me and smiles. The chaos suddenly catches up to me and I register the din of women speaking softly, mobile phones ringing, and children running in and out of the women’s entrance gathering their shoes and dashing off into the dusk.

Reflecting on the prayer, I wonder what triggered this momentary gift. We were walking from the souk, taking a detour along the shore when the call to prayer rang out and greeted the rhythm meted out by the rolling waves. Ivy was nursing in her sling and the quick jog to the mosque sent her straight to sleep. During the commotion to join the line, she awoke and latched back on. I pointed to my nursing cover and deferred to the wisdom of my sister in law, mouthing, “Is this OK?” A shrug and a, “go for it,” was all I needed to hear.

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My daughter Ivy devours bananas. She can finish off half a banana in minutes and screams if you take it away from her before she’s done. In fact, at five months old she has already tasted bagels, figs and chicken – stuffing anything within reach on my plate into her mouth. At birth, my other daughter Eryn absolutely refused to nurse, and I spent the first 48 hours of her life desperately feeding her a mixture of colostrum and water and eventually turned to formula when she lost too much weight. But we persevered and I successfully nursed her for three years.

For both babies, my intention was to follow the World Health Organization’srecommendation to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of their lives. The girls, of course, had something else in mind – and I ended up joining the statistics of mothers who, for whatever reason, fail at following this important medical advice.

Despite the fact that health authorities around the world support the WHO’s recommendation, only 37% of mothers around the world exclusively breast feed for the recommended time. It’s 39% in the developing world, 25.9% in Canada, 14% in Australia, 8% in Brazil, and France doesn’t even register, with negligible breastfeeding statistics past two months post-partum.

Recently, IRIN released a report on the “shocking” decline of exclusive breastfeeding in the West African country of Guinea. Apparently, Muslim women and families are offering newborn infants water that’s been blessed by inscriptions of the Holy Qur’an, and will forgo initiating breastfeeding until this water treatment is administered:

“Countless babies in Guinea are not given their first breast milk for hours – however long it takes a designated family member to bring water that is used to rinse special Koranic verses inscribed on a wooden tablet. This symbolic liquid, the first thing many babies ingest, is just one example of a custom believed to protect children but that can instead jeopardize their health.”

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Asleep on her own.

Some say breastfeeding is a relationship. It has ups and downs and if it’s no longer working for one of the people involved, perhaps it’s time for a reevaluation.

Since day one I loved nursing Eryn. I had no “plan” as to how long we would nurse and one day I woke up to nursing a toddler. And I was okay with that. Then Ivy came along and I cried when Eryn cried for me — begging me to give the baby to Baba. So I nursed both.

So far I’ve been lucky with tandem nursing — both girls will nurse and fall asleep. It’s heaven having a couple of hours to myself to sleep, clean, or these days, read Qur’an. And with Eryn, we’ve gotten to the point where she nurses only 10 minutes before nap and bed time. I’ve always just followed her lead, and she’s accepted my suggestions when I’ve said we’re only going to nurse for one or two lullaby’s.

So maybe she’s weaning herself and I’m not the worst mother in the world.

But today I felt like I was.

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A little pillow talk before bed time:

“I want num-inah.”

“You know, you were really good today Eryn.”

“I want num-inah.”

“You were so calm at the mall. You didn’t scream or run around or anything.”

“I want num-inah?”

“You made mommy’s job so much easier. Thank you.”

“I want num-inah?”

“And tonight you didn’t bother Ivy at all. She really loves you but sometimes gets upset when you always pull her hands and try to kiss her. You were a great big sister!”

“I want num-inah.”

“FINE. But you can nurse for only two songs.”

“Five. No, three. Five. One-two-three-four-five. Five.”

“Two and Lullaby and Goodnight.”

“I want num-inah.”

I’ve been monitoring a parental dilemma unfold from the sidelines. In between diffusing toddler tantrums and bleary-eyed, marathon nursing sessions at dawn, I’ve watched lactivists and parents alike discuss, support and deride the following image:

Who nurses their child like this?

Now on it’s own, to me this picture conveys a sense of breastfeeding empowerment — mama Jamie Lynne Grumet isn’t going to let anyone tell her to put her boob away or that once kids have teeth they should be eating only solids. She’s a tough cookie, but the image also borders on militancy — with the boy’s army fatigues and that odd, staring, slightly frightened look in his eyes.

I mean, TIME magazine COULD have used this image instead from their full photoshoot:

Yes! Like this! Snuggles, oxytocin and relaxed sighs for everyone!

But with that headline, it’s pretty clear TIME wanted to stir the pot and what better way to cause a controversy than by pitting parents against each other? Did you bottle feed formula to your baby? Guess you’re not mom enough. Are you a single father? Guess you’re not mom enough. Do you own a stroller? Guess you’re not mom enough. Media-generated mommy wars abound, and if you can believe it, calls to Social Services for the mother getting her jollies from sticking her breast in her child’s mouth.

I mean really, Attachment Parenting drives mothers to extremes (and only mothers because I guess siblings, fathers, extended families and partners don’t play a part in this nutty form of parenting) by encouraging co-sleeping, baby wearing and *gasp* extended breastfeeding? That by-line sounds like a new TLC show: Babes with Boobs, eXXXtreme breastfeeding!

There have been many brilliant pieces written about this controversial TIME cover. And if you aren’t already sick and tired of hearing about it, here’s a quick roundup of some of my favourite pieces:

The woman poured hot tea from her cup into the saucer, gave it a couple of cooling swirls and gulped it down in one, refreshing slurp. Having never seen someone drink out of a saucer before, Eryn gave the woman the oddest, what-on-earth-are-you-DOING look and drew closer to my leg. The woman laughed heartily and coaxed Eryn with a chocolate. By the end of tea, Eryn was flying through the air to give her kisses.

Hajiya’s hands were covered in traditional Iraqi Bedouin tattoos. As were her feet, chest and, to my surprise, much of her face. From her eyebrows to her toes, this kind elder stuffing my toddler full of chocolates was officially the most tattooed woman I had ever met. And I desperately wanted to hear the story behind each dot and talisman flowing like poetry on her skin.

For almost two years Hajiya and her lovely daughter have taken care of my sister-in-law – sharing food and family support since both extended families live an ocean away. I’ve heard many stories of Hajiya’s desert wisdom and kindness and was very excited to meet her.

Speaking broken English and though translations of a Kuwaiti dialect, we discussed my sister-in-law’s upcoming boxing match and my current pregnancy. Eryn interrupted and put her hand on my belly, saying: “Baby! Mama, womb.” Then, nodding for emphasis, she took the opportunity to mention our nursing arrangement.

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When our breastfeeding relationship began, Eryn would cough and sputter and hit me – upset at the lack of flow or overwhelmed when it was too much. A few months later, she went on a nursing strike and I had to cajole her into feeding by coming up with gravity defying, acrobatic holding positions. Then when she got teeth, I painfully received the message each.and.every.time she wanted to be outside exploring the grass instead of nursing – which soon stopped once I figured out that we could do both.

Now that she’s communicating verbally, sometimes nursing is blech along with spinach, lemons and peas. And sometimes it’s so important to her, that she performs her nyum-na dance, twirling and shaking her bottom when I come home from work. She pats, caresses and snuggles my chest. She smiles and laughs, gets comfortable and waits patiently for me to undress. I tell her stories and she sighs contentedly. In stressful or new situations, a quick check-in with my breasts gives her the confidence to explore and make new friends without me by her side. And just this week, we survived another hallucination-induced fever, when breast milk was the only thing she ate for days.

The ease, comfort and connection we have through nursing greatly outweigh any bumps we’ve had along the way. It’s an arrangement that works for our little family – and I’ve always given her the opportunity to engage or stop whenever she wants. She loves nursing, and I don’t see her giving it up any time soon.

Much to the consternation of some family, friends and complete strangers.

I didn’t blink the first time I heard that the Qur’an recommends breastfeeding until the age of two. It was something that just didn’t apply to a childless, single academic, so I filed it away as an interesting fact and never bothered exploring this aspect of Islamic jurisprudence.

So I was completely flabbergasted when upon getting married, having a baby and choosing to breastfeed, I was told that nursing past the age of two is haraam, or forbidden.

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As a brand new mother, I scoured the Internet for reliable information regarding attachment parenting, baby wearing, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, discipline, and all topics relating to the areas of motherhood and feminism that resonated with me. It wasn’t long before I was constantly referring to the fount of wisdom that is PhD in Parenting.

Annie, the blog’s brilliant author, is at the cutting edge of all things parenthood. From anti-Nestle campaigns and breastfeeding lactivism to opinions on parenting books and public policy — PhD in Parenting has brokered a wide readership and an impressive level of authority on the subject.

In response to negative comments saying that women should cover up when breastfeeding, Annie has created an amazing video tackling the potential anti-breastfeeding message that’s voiced when people dictate how others should dress in public.

Positioning that covering is a feminist issue, the video begins with contradictory quotes — telling women to loosen up, but not to dress like a slut. It then moves to artistic shots of women in various levels of dress: a burqa, hijab, sweaters, low-cut shirts and nothing at all, saying that women are free to wear whatever they want. The video then shows images of nursing mothers in various stages of dress — emphasizing the obvious double standard that some hold between nursing and non-nursing women.

The video’s message is clear: telling women what to wear, or what not to wear is a form of oppression. How a woman relates to herself and to others through clothing, and her reasons for doing so, are her choice regardless of the degree to which she covers. Forcing a woman into burqa, or banning a woman from wearing hijab is just as offensive as telling a breastfeeding mother that nursing her child in public is disgusting.

As Annie explains in the comments section of her post,

For a breastfeeding mother whose baby will not accept being covered or who finds it awkward to use a cover, that could mean that she opts not to nurse in public, which could make her more likely to supplement, to feel like she has to go and hide to nurse, or result in her choosing to wean early because it is just too difficult to nurse in public.

As much as I rail against the barrier, it took a fussy nursling to eat noisily behind a mosque curtain for me to feel comfortable breastfeeding in public. Having the freedom to leave my house with my child, without fear of reprisals or transgression of my own standards of modesty was a huge step for me. If at any time someone would have commented negatively on how I nurse my child, I probably would have never left the house. And no one deserve the right to force women into that position by bullying, force, or prejudice. Because yes, it is prejudice and oppression against breastfeeding when women are asked to cover up the second a child is attached to their chest.

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder,
But when it comes to dressing and breastfeeding,
Appropriateness should be decided by the mother.

If you don’t like it
Then please, discreetly avert your eyes.

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