Once upon a time, when I was a young, fresh-faced new Muslim, I used to dream about what life would be like after marriage. I thought about what the perfect age would be when I found my prospective husband and whether we would have children. Would it be right away or would we wait? How many would they be? At what age would I have them? I built a perfect scenario in my mind, as I am sure many girls do. I was in for a rude awakening when life reminded me that it is Allah that is in control of our affairs. As the saying goes, we plan, but Allah is the best of planners.
Admittedly, breastfeeding was never part of the equation when I imagined motherhood. In my early twenties, I never imagined I would have six children, much less nurse all of them for two years. It was never part of my plan, but insanely, I have been breastfeeding for twelve years of my life, only taking breaks for a year or two between or during pregnancies.
Now, looking back on my parenting journey as a veteran Muslim of over two decades is mind-blowing. All I can do is praise Allah for giving me the opportunity and the strength because nursing a baby consistently in modern society is difficult. Breastfeeding was not something I ever considered because I was conditioned to think that feeding babies solely entailed preparing bottles of formula. Before coming across the verses in the Quran about mothers suckling their infants, I never thought of it as something common. Now it is as normal to me as breathing, and in reality, our bodies are designed to produce milk just as effortlessly as we inhale and exhale.
What is it like to breastfeed?
If someone were to ask me to describe what it feels like to breastfeed, I would not know where to start or what to say. The feeding itself is not what is memorable. To put it simply, it is like placing a gasoline nozzle into your car, adjusting the lever on the pump, and waiting until the tank fills up. What makes nursing special is the closeness, the warmth, and the repose it provides to both mother and infant. To have a baby there so close knowing only you can nourish him/her in this manner is one of the most satisfying feelings in the world. Holding your children intently and observing every inch of them, as they are looking up at you lovingly is one of the greatest gifts in this life. As they doze off to sleep so comfortably and securely, a mother is at peace knowing that her child is safe and loved. This is a protection only she can provide by Allah’s Grace.
If you look at the science, all those feel-good emotions are not a coincidence. There are hormones at play like prolactin and oxytocin which trigger peaceful and nurturing feelings, allowing mothers to rest and build an attachment to their babies. Allah has crafted these chemical reactions in our bodies to create instinctive maternal responses. A beautiful incident in the Seerah that highlights the bond between a nursing mother and her infant is narrated in the following hadith:
Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, reported that some captives of war were brought to the Messenger of Allah, Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and there was a woman among them who was moving quickly and running. Suddenly, this woman saw an infant in the midst of the captives. She took hold of him, brought him to her bosom, and started nursing him. Upon that, the Messenger of Allah asked: "Do you think that this woman would throw her child in the fire?" We said: "No, By Allah, she would not." He then said: "Verily, Allah is more merciful to His slaves than this woman is to her child."
(Bukhari and Muslim)
The scholar, Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani, explained this hadith in his own words. He said,
“This woman had lost her child. Since her breasts were filled with milk and she could not locate her child, she would feed other children to get some relief from the discomfort. When she found her (own) child, she fed him and clung on to him. This is when the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, asked the Sahabah, ‘Do you think this woman will cast her child into a fire?”
(Fath Al Bari, hadith 5999)
What an honor that by virtue of her yearning to nourish her infant, a mother’s mercy is compared to the mercy of our Most Merciful Creator by none other than the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him! When this desperate mother finally found her baby, she immediately scooped him up and put him to her breast. The urge to hold him close and nurse him was so great that she forgot everything else, not even realizing that people noticed her actions. The bond of a mother and her baby is that strong. Nevertheless, the mercy of our Lord surpasses this relationship.
When I read this and other narrations about nursing mothers and their children in the Quran and the Sunnah, it brings me immense joy. Personally, I consider nursing my children for the prescribed period in the Quran as one of my biggest accomplishments in life – greater than any promotion, degree, or award. I have learned a lot from breastfeeding and owe all its blessings and benefits to Allah alone, who guides us on how to care for our children in the Quran.
Valuable Lessons Learned
As a show of gratitude, I try to encourage other mothers who are considering breastfeeding by sharing my experiences and advice. Here are six valuable lessons I have learned from nursing six children:
1. Breastfeeding is a privilege.
As mentioned previously, breastfeeding is not for everyone. Not all women will experience it or will be able to sustain a nursing relationship with their babies for a plethora of reasons. There are working mothers who are unable to keep up with the demands of pumping milk daily. Others whose health limit them from being able to produce an adequate supply of milk or whose medications affect its quality. Allah has made exceptions for families who cannot continue breastfeeding and included verses in the Quran that provide guidance on how to manage weaning. As such, those who are able to nurse should be grateful to Allah and continuously show their gratitude through prayer, supplication, contemplation and dhikr (remembrance). Breastfeeding is an all day, multiple times a day affair; beginning every feeding with “bismillah” and concluding with “alhamdulillah” will ensure you rack up on good deeds, insha’Allah.
2. Breastfeeding is also a sacrifice.
Breastfeeding is both rewarding and exhausting in unimaginable ways. Like childbirth, it is difficult to describe to someone who has never experienced it. Fathers, even those who are active participants in their infant’s feeding, cradling, caressing, and burping, will never understand what it is like to nurse a baby. Only those mothers who braved unknown territory and willingly gave up their bodily autonomy, sacrificing sleep, and readily experiencing discomfort and pain for weeks on end, will truly know. Some of those same mothers understandably decide to throw in the towel early, because this battle is not easy, and the dark tunnel seems far too long before reaching the light.
Yet, many of us continue this path, hoping for Allah’s favor and motivated by the knowledge that so many women before us were able to do the same. Allah honors a mother’s heroic nature in this beautiful verse:
“And We have commanded people to ˹honor˺ their parents. Their mothers bore them through hardship upon hardship, and their weaning takes two years. So be grateful to Me and your parents. To Me is the final return.”
(Surah Luqman, 31:14)
3. For this, breastfeeding is an honor in both this life and the next.
It is fascinating that Allah rationalizes honoring one’s parents with the hardships endured by pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. It is refreshing to know that these ultimate acts of love are worthy of endless gratitude. Nursing a newborn into the toddler years is a natural part of motherhood and something only womankind can achieve. There is a certain sense of empowerment and accomplishment when we are able to carry out this feat. Given that Allah mentions breastfeeding in the Quran more than once is evidence of its immeasurable value. Not all girls and women are destined to become mothers, but our intention is to eventually reach that stage to reap its rewards. Thankfully, our religion only requires that we intend goodness to be compensated in this life and the Hereafter.
4. The challenges of breastfeeding do not get easier with each child.
No matter how many babies you give birth to and how many times you have done it, nursing a newborn does not get easier. However, one thing is for certain, you will be better prepared with every attempt, more resilient, and more determined the more you do it and the longer you continue. You also learn to understand your body more and will instinctively know what to do, and what you will and will not need. For example, for my first pregnancy, I stocked up on nursing pads because I was afraid of embarrassing leaks. I have since learned that those leaks are most common in the early stages of breastfeeding and happen less once you have established a regular routine – at least for me. If your baby misses a feeding or if you are far away, then anticipate that leaking may occur and plan ahead. You do not even need fancy pads; just cut up some clean towelettes or socks and slip a square into your bra to absorb moisture.
Additionally, the first two or three weeks of establishing a good latch with your infant and a regular feeding routine are the worst, but once you have tread through that fire, things will become easier. Hold on to the promise of Allah:
“Surely with hardship comes ease.”
(Surah Ash-Shahr. 94:5)
5. There are many myths about breastfeeding out there.
Let us debunk a few myths you may have heard about nursing your child. For starters, there is also a common misconception that new mothers do not produce enough milk for their newborns. Keep in mind that a baby’s stomach is tiny and they do not need much to get full. Putting your baby to the breast routinely will maintain an adequate milk supply, as long as no medical issues exist. Always consult with your medical provider and a breastfeeding expert for advice.
A popular myth is that breastfeeding will make your breasts sag. Instead, blame aging and good old gravity for droopy breasts. As a matter of fact, your breast size grows as they prepare for a new baby and as they fill up with milk. If you are suckling your infant regularly, then you can maintain your breasts at a slightly larger size until you wean. Once you wean, they may return to their former state.
Another myth is that breastfeeding may spoil your baby or make him or her clingier. In fact, breastfed babies are confident and independent. Because you are providing them with security and comfort, they learn to depend on you only when they are hungry, tired, or hurt. They are often better equipped to regulate their own emotions since they know that Mommy is always close by when they need her.
6. There are numerous advantages to breastfeeding.
Mothers were built to breastfeed. There is nothing weird, disgusting, or crazy about it, but society has placed hurdles in front of women who only wish to keep things simple. To keep a nursing baby fed and happy, a mother need only offer her breast, or a bottle filled with her expressed milk, and that is all. There is no need to purchase, mix, or experiment with formula. Breast milk is already the right temperature and consistency for the baby.
Our breasts are accessible and portable – they follow us wherever we go! For those who fear exposing themselves when breastfeeding in public, there are plenty of ways to be discreet. I have nursed my babies in all kinds of places like parks, movie theaters, beaches, airports, planes, malls, schools, masajid, and in the car. Alhamdulillah, not once has my bare breast been exposed to the world. There are plenty of nursing covers, abayas, blankets, and other modest items that will keep wandering eyes away. On top of that, proper hijab that covers the chest can easily serve as a veil for your nursling, as well.
All in all, breastfeeding is a gift from mother to baby and from baby to mother, but mostly, it is a gift from Allah to all humankind. We must approach it intentionally, to fulfill our children’s right to be nourished and loved, and to do so for the sake of Allah.
Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish (hablamosislam.org). She has written, illustrated, and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland. Follow Wendy Díaz on social media @authorwendydiaz and @hablamosislam
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