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Bateel Skycraper


The milk of human kindness

The milk of human kindness

Issue 5 May / Jun 2004

First featured in issue 5 - May/June 2004

Click here to go to the Issue 5 archives


Breastfeeding is natural and is best for baby and mother, we are always told. But the battle between the bottle and the breast rages on in hospitals, clinics and homes across the land. And, as Nazli Hussain reports, if “breast is best”, why does the UK have one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe?


It is an emotive topic which strikes fear into the heart of many a new parent. The first cries of a newborn babe are accompanied with advice by the bucket load. How is the baby going to be fed, where will he or she sleep, what is the right way to bath the babe…..?


Women who are breastfeeding need support from family, friends and society. This is recognised by government and as such the National Health Service runs a Breastfeeding Awareness Week which seeks to raise awareness of the importance of breastfeeding. This year the week is 9th – 15th May.

Breast milk has been the source of human infant survival since the beginning of time with formula milk being a very recent introduction. Yet, in the UK a bottle- feeding culture resounds, even though most mothers will be able to breastfeed their babies with the right guidance. For some mums, however, there are genuine medical reasons which make them turn to the bottle and they should not be made to feel guilty if they do not breastfeed. But nine out of ten mums who stop breastfeeding in the first six weeks don’t actually want to stop.

Indeed although breastfeeding statistics are improving they are still woefully low: whilst 69% of women begin breastfeeding - 21% of those will stop within the first two weeks and 58% will stop within six weeks. 79% of women will have stopped by six months despite that fact that the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend babies need nothing other than breast milk for the first six months of life. To improve the figures the WHO along with UNICEF have made breastfeeding an important part of campaigns for child health.

Although breastfeeding is said to be “natural”, it isn’t always plain sailing. Breastfeeding is a  skill, which like most things in life requires time, patience,  understanding, and support. Many parents may not know exactly how breastfeeding works and are wary having heard sad stories of failing milk supplies and some early physical discomfort. In fact some mums have no real problems, while others have difficult starts which eventually lead to delight. It helps to remember that every baby, and therefore every breastfeeding experience, is different.

Islamically, mothers are encouraged to breastfeed, as it is nutritionally better for the baby  and the mother’s provision of milk is a gift from God, “The  mother shall suckle their children for two years, (that is) for those (parents) who desire to complete the term of suckling...” Surah Baqarah, ayah 233. The act of breast feeding is rewardable by God and the woman who breast feeds is said to be one who performs jihad – struggling in God’s way. The husband is asked to support this endeavour of his wife which she is undertaking for the benefit of their child. Things are not always plain sailing though so good advice is essential.

Dr Zareen Rahim is a mother of two and lives in London. “Breastfeeding is the best start to life, and nutritionally it is best for  baby and beneficial to the mother,” she says. “Of course there can be early difficulties, but it is  good to keep in mind that they will not last. New mums should  have family help, and the time and the space to be able to feed at ease.” She stresses the importance of the nutrition of mothers, “Breastfeeding mothers don’t need to be eating for two, but they must drink plenty of fluids such as milk and juices. And they should not solely drink milk, as it is untrue that milk makes milk. Mums should keep a jug of water in their room, so they know how much they have drunk each day.”

Dr Rahim advises mums “should eat straight after a feed. Good snacks are essential such as beans on toast or a yoghurt, rather than the empty calories of tea and biscuits. When mums don’t eat after feeding, they can feel empty inside and light-headed. It is important that they maintain a good diet and keep well hydrated.”

Breast feeding can come with its own difficulties, and as Dr Rahim reminds, “if  your baby is failing to thrive and not gaining weight then do seek medical. Mothers should not be pushed into a corner and feel guilty if they can’t breastfeed. They are not failures. ” reminds Dr Rahim.

This point is underlined by Mairi Lane, a health visitor, who says “There are places to get help from and mothers should not be afraid to ask. However, mothers should not become obsessed about weight gain. I work in areas with a lot people from areas where the people are quite frankly not 95th centile people! As long as your baby is  healthy and is gaining along his centile then that is what is important. A bottle fed baby will normally be heavier than a breastfed baby, but that is not necessarily good. Indeed, breast milk lays the foundation for the body on how to deal with food and so breastfed babies are far less likely to be obese as adults.”

Family and community pressure for “heavy babies” is just one reason why many  women given up breast feeding, feeling they can’t go out is another. “I felt that the baby would wake up and need feeding if I went out, and that I couldn’t possibly breastfeed in public.” said Mariam Khan, a mother of two from London. “I was so near to giving up, then one day I saw this Muslim sister feeding  her baby on a park bench. She had the baby tucked under her scarf and you couldn’t see a thing. I sat next to her and we began talking.  She said she breastfed everywhere, just tucking the baby  under her scarf. She gave me so much confidence that I  didn’t give up and went on to feed my son until he was 18 months, only stopping when I fell pregnant with my daughter.”



For Tahira Amin, she almost stopped because of her mother in law. “She wanted the baby and she wanted me up and about. I really wanted to feed the baby but it was relentless and I got so depressed.  Thankfully my husband stepped in and made her realise that breastfeeding was best for the baby and for me. She wasn’t happy about it but he was firm and kind and eventually she accepted it.”

Changing attitudes is one of the motives behind Breast Feeding Awareness Week, and although Islam promotes breastfeeding, there are still many negative attitudes towards it within the Muslim community. Without making those who can’t breastfeed feel failures, it is important to promote breastfeeding for the vast majority of women who, with a little help and encouragement, can give their babies the best start in life.

“ I had no knowledge of breastfeeding, as I don’t have sisters and none of my friends had babies yet. But I knew I wanted to feed my firstborn to protect them from the asthma and eczema which affects our family. Initially I found it very difficult to breastfeed and we were worried about the baby not gaining weight. So we did mixed feeding and gave formula milk too for the first two weeks. But then my husband said if we were going to breastfeed then it was best to do it exclusively, so there was the best chance of getting established. It was tough! To be honest I didn’t know much and neither did my new baby. The feeds were long, baby kept falling sleep, and my neck and shoulders ached. We were feeding on demand, and it really was my fulltime job at first. I kept counting the days, wondering how long I could keep going.

I could not have breastfed without the support of my husband. He wasn’t fussy about timing, the house, or meals (I don’t remember what we ate in those first weeks!). He knew the value of breastfeeding and the medical benefits too so was calm and confident and encouraged me. It took me a couple of months to get feeding established - for some mums it is quicker. Then we were away! No messy bottles to make and take; the joy of  feeding anywhere and the ease of the nights; and knowing I was doing my best for my baby. The best advice I got from a family friend was ‘Don’t look at the clock when feeding.’  Also my husband encouraged me to get out with the baby rather than feeling trapped inside four walls. With practice I became happy about feeding my baby when I was out and about, as I would find a quiet corner and then discreetly tuck my baby under my scarf to feed.

I always remember these wise words from my health visitor in my first hard days of motherhood: “I’d rather have a sane mother who is bottle-feeding, than an insane mother who’s breastfeeding!” But with support I kept my sanity and breastfed my baby.


Where to go for information and support

The National Health Service breastfeeding website has lots of information plus links to other sites.


National Childbirth Trust

Covering many aspects of birth and parenting this site has a great section on how to breastfeed your baby. There is a dedicated breastfeeding advice line from 8am to 10pm 7 days a week - 0870 4448708


La Leche League

This site offers support and information. They produce the ‘Breastfeeding Answer Book’ and provide a 24- hour support line - 0845 120 2918.


Association of Breastfeeding Mothers

The site has an online magazine, a list of recommended books, information on how to become a counsellor yourself and a link up system to find other breastfeeding mothers in your area. They offer a voluntary helpline run by a breastfeeding counsellor. - 020 7813 1481


Breastfeeding Network

Offering independent support and information about breastfeeding, this site has a list of BfN Breastfeeding Centres. Their “Supporterline” is open from 9.30am to 9.30pm and will connect you to your nearest Breastfeeding Supporter - 0870 900 8787


Some top tips


Before you begin

Make sure you have a glass of water or juice by your side in case you get thirsty. A healthy snack is also helpful – you never know whether it’s going to be a long feed. Remembering to put the telephone, your latest reading book and the T.V. remote by your chair is also helpful.


Finding the right position

You can be there for quite a while so it's important to make sure you are sitting comfortably. Try and keep your back straight while you are feeding. Either try feeding in a straight-backed chair or support your back with pillows. Lifting the baby up on a cushion or soft pillow can help stop you from hunching over.


Expressing milk

Make sure you buy a good breast pump. Breast pumps put more pressure on the nipple than a baby sucking so it is worth investing that little bit more for comfort. If you want to store your expressed milk, it keeps at the back of the fridge where it is coldest for 24 hours and in the freezer for up to 3 months. Milk at room temperature should be used immediately. A quick tip is to freeze the milk in sterilized ice cube trays. Once frozen they can be popped out and stored in sterile freezer bags. One cube is approximately one ounce and this way you only have to defrost what is needed, so no precious expressed breast milk is lost.



If you have painful swollen breasts it may mean that your milk is not flowing effectively. Get help to check the position of your baby while he or she is feeding as a poor position may stop the baby from emptying the breast. Also, make sure the baby empties one breast before moving unto the other side. A hot flannel or hot shower can relieve the pressure of a swollen breast.


Sore Nipples

Nipples do get sore. It is worth remembering that once the nipples get used to the sucking of the baby then things will settle down. To get over the early days then use a good cream that does not need to be washed off. A tube of Kamilosan or other such cream is a worthwhile investment. Rubbing some breast milk on the nipple can also really help.


Other children?

It can be boring for other children to sit and wait for Mummy to finish feeding. Provide a snack and a drink so they are being fed too, or you could try a story tape, video or box of toys you keep especially for this occasion. Once you are more practiced you can read a story to the older child whilst feeding the baby.


Accepting that it will take time

In the womb, your baby has never known hunger, therefore don’t be surprised if he needs to drink what can feel like constantly. Breastfeeding is a commitment especially in those early weeks, but once you are over that period it really is much easier.


Asking for help

Those early days with baby can be hard work. Make sure you ask those around you for help. Get a relative or friend to give you a few hours of extra help at home. This will free you up to spend time getting breastfeeding right.

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