Imagine a new mother who is struggling to feed her newborn baby. Even though both are healthy and thriving, establishing the nursing routine is turning out to be a bit of a challenge and both are becoming frustrated. Imagine an imam opening the doors of his mosque only to find a newborn infant crying in a discarded sports bag. Imagine a 3-month-old baby who becomes orphaned when her parents die in an accident. Or imagine a mother who finds her milk dwindling after becoming pregnant while still nursing her young child.
All these scenarios happen in today's world, and the foremost concern really should be the care for the child. Though relatives, neighbors, and foster care networks can come to aid in the cases of abandonment or death of a mother, many overlook the basic nourishment of the baby and turn to formula milk as the alternative for feeding the infant. This is similar in cases where mothers stumble upon difficulties in nursing — in this modern-day setting, she would shop for formula.
Breastfeeding advocates have come up with a solution for these predicaments. It is nothing new or strange, they say: just milk share between mothers. A mother with excess breast milk can donate her milk to a baby in need, rather than leaving the child supplemented or fed formula milk.
Eats on Feets (EoF) is one network that looks out for the well-being of infants as far as breastfeeding is concerned. The UK-founded network brings together a spider web of breastfeeding mothers who are out to share excess breast milk with mothers or caretakers who are in need of it for babies under their care.
Allowing mothers to make the informed choice about breast milk, as an alternative for the increasingly popular milk formula that many babies are often fed when breastfeeding obstacles arise, EoF champions the importance of breast milk to bolster the immune system and provide the required natural nutrients for growth and streamlines a general understanding that human babies should be fed human milk, rather than alternatives.
Breastfeeding is also an integral part of motherhood in Islam, and milk sharing, in fact, is nothing new. The Qur'an clearly conveys that mothers should nurse their children for two years. So, what did normally happen in cases where nursing obstacles did arise during the time of the Prophet? After all, milk formula with synthetic nutrients, like DHA and ARA, is not heard of in any Prophetic legacy.
Islamic history relates that other lactating mothers were sought to help nurse infants who were in need of breast milk, fostering strong ties between individuals who were not necessarily related by blood.
The EoF organization has recently established a chapter in Malaysia, by birth and breastfeeding advocate Nadine Ghows. She initially observed the worldwide growth of the EoF network on Face book, and after some contagious encouragement from other advocates, she decided that pooling breastfeeding mothers in multicultural and multi religious Malaysia for the one single goal of sharing their breast milk with less fortunate infants would be a noble cause. Two other mothers, Ayuni Zainuddin and Zaszima Abu Samah, jumped on board as co-administrators for the EoF page.
"The page was created with the help from EoF global administrators and promoted via our personal statuses, but not many people liked the page except for our close-knit community of breastfeeding advocates," Ghows told Onislam.net
With a little persistence, though, and through the beauty of social networking, awareness and interest began to spread. Other breastfeeding advocate pages, such as Mama Link and Breastfeeding Advocates Network, promoted EoF Malaysia, bringing the page's popularity up to over .
Concerns to Be Considered
However, across the globe, as with any "odd" initiative, there came the unfortunate initial shock. Some skeptics found that sharing breast milk with strangers over the Internet was unnatural and somewhat dangerous, but soon, even when EoF
The mothers remain positive, although finding that, in Muslim-majority
"It is more of creating awareness to counter the general apathy among Muslims," says Ghows, who firmly stands by the principle that babies deserve breast milk over any other form of nutrition. "We are posting links and articles (on the Facebook page) with opinions from scholars such as Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and other resources. Whoever is thinking of donating or requesting breast milk can refer to these articles and make informed decisions about milk sharing."
Zainuddin herself helped a friend who was struggling with milk production. She nursed her premature baby, who was born 18 days after her own son, Marikh. Even through her experience, Zainuddin still found that some Muslims were wary of such a process, worrying that milk-sharing children would marry in the future.
"Milk sharing is something of noble intention, therefore, I personally feel that it should not be discouraged for fear of the children marrying one another," she says. "This is something simple that we can tackle when the children are still young. It is the children's right to receive the next best thing, not the last, in the hierarchy," she explains, referring to formula milk.
Islamic law stipulates that two babies breastfed by the same milk-providing mother automatically become Mahram (unmarriageable kin) and, hence, the concern that confusion over their milk-relations may cause problems in the future.
Abu Samah, a lawyer by qualification, has actively worked toward helping Muslim mothers nurse responsibly in light of this concern by sourcing scholarly opinions on how Islamic milk sharing should be done. Zainuddin has gone ahead and contacted Malaysia's religious department for a fatwa to clarify ambiguities and to continue championing the importance of breast milk for babies.
Ghows puts concerns in focus, "As with anything, there is risk with milk sharing — from a hygienic or health perspective. But, there is also a risk with formula-feeding infants," she emphasizes, "A relatively bigger risk in fact!"
Mothers who choose to nurture their infants with the best of nutrition (breast milk), even if it is through milk sharing, are aware of the innumerable benefits of breast milk as opposed to formula. For many Muslims, the Qur'anic injunction of breastfeeding is a babies right.
To fully appreciate the concerns, however, one has to grasp the implications set out in accordance to the Qur'an and the Sunnah. A nurse-baby is recognized as a Mahram to the nursing mother, her husband, their parents, their siblings, their own biological children (even those stemming from previous marriages), and any other baby who is nursed by the same nurse-mother. The nurse-baby also becomes Mahram to children of his or her nurse-siblings, as his or her own children become Mahram to the nurse-baby's nurse-siblings. Scholarly consensus denotes that five full feeds before the age of two solidifies this relationship, regardless of the gender, race, nationality, or religion of the mother and the child. The religion of neither the mother nor the child is affected through this relationship.
It does sound like quite a spider web. During the time of the Prophet, communities were closer-knit, allowing the proper observance of lineage, unlike communities today. What is more, with mothers meeting on the Internet, the lines of unmarriageable kin could really get into a muddle.
But Zainuddin is working on a solution. She plans to set up an online network where families can chart their family trees, including babies who were breastfed by the same mother. Online family tree platforms already exist, and although Zainuddin's idea remains in its infancy, she is determined to iron out any qualms about milk sharing that are specific to Islam.
Overall, Ghows still wishes for education to persevere. "I hope that more mothers will become aware of the superior qualities of breast milk as the perfectly designed, God-given source of nutrition for our babies," she says.
Breastfeeding is said to save lives, raise IQs, and carry incomparable, holistic benefits for baby (and mother).
She continues, "And for them to be able to provide breast milk to their babies — if not through breastfeeding – there is always the alternative, mothers should know, and it does not have to be formula — then they can provide the same for their babies, through milk sharing."
The emergence of EoF and awareness of milk sharing comes at a time when cultures and communities are growing further apart, but the silver lining is that they can find common grounds through virtual networks — through the use of the Internet, allowing an important Islamic practice to be revived in a modern, techno-savvy world.