Many mothers will make the choice to fast while breastfeeding during Ramadan. Even so many will still have concerns for themselves and for their infants.
As Ramadan draws nearer, I find the question most frequently asked on various mother and child support groups is, will I be able to fast and breastfeed my child?
These mothers’ concerns vary from the age of the breastfed baby, to how will breastfeeding affect the nutrients and the quantity of her breast milk. A baby who is heavily relying on breast milk has different needs from a nursing toddler who can eat some kinds of food in addition to the breast milk.
So, what happens to breast milk during fasting?
A study was conducted on women in the UAE where milk samples were taken from healthy mothers before and after Ramadan. The study concluded that fasting did not in any way negatively affect the breast milk.
The macronutrients, which are nutrients, needed in large quantities like proteins and carbohydrates did not show any sign of decrease. Even the fat content showed little or no change. What is astounding and miraculous is that studies indicate that the breast itself is able to make some milk fats. This means various types of fat will come from your own fat supply if there is not enough in your diet to feed your baby.
Dr. Hessa Khalfan Al Ghazal, Director of the Executive Committee of the Sharjah Baby Friendly Emirate Campaign, remarks, “Breast milk is incredibly resilient, and can retain its major nutrients even during fasting” (2). Women in many poverty stricken nations still provide babies with the same nutrient rich milk as those from developed countries.
However, fasting did have an impact on the level of micronutrients including potassium, zinc and magnesium, which are only needed in small quantities by the body. This is not necessarily a bad thing as breast milk adapts and changes all the time, to meet the nutritional demands of your baby.
Nevertheless, severe dehydration can cause a nursing mother’s milk supply to decrease but this can be easily avoided if the mother hydrates throughout the night with liquids. Besides fasting being a physical act, we should not forget the spiritual side of it.
Ramadan is a blessed month and breastfeeding mothers who are fasting should firmly believe that Allah would provide milk for the baby. Though, Allah by His Mercy has given mothers the concession to not fast, if they fear for their children and themselves.
Preventing Burnout During Fasting
Preventing a burnout is the key to having a successful Ramadan. Dr. Al Ghazal says, “No matter if the mother chooses to fast or not, it is crucial that she maintains the same breastfeeding pattern during Ramadan to give the baby a sense of continuity and rhythm.”
She further explains, “It is vital for a breastfeeding mother to stay hydrated, as she should ensure that her milk volume and feeding frequency are as close to normal.”
However, many women stop breastfeeding during Ramadan so that they can continue fasting. It is disheartening that fasting is blamed for preventing women from providing the ultimate nourishment to their babies.
The key factor here is that communities should support breastfeeding women who are fasting, especially during Ramadan. In addition, women should maintain their well-being by means of a healthy diet, plenty of rest, strong support structure, and remembrance of Allah. This will ensure that mothers enjoy the blessing of fasting and breastfeeding.
Protect Your Health and Milk Supply During Ramadan
Turn to Allah. Umm Salah Pistorious, a mother of three and administrator for Revert Support at Fajrul Islam Centre in Cape Town remarks, “If you have any concern, turn to Almighty Allah. Ask Him to fill your breasts to overflowing, and for it to be easy on you too.
Glory to Allah, surely all sustenance comes from Him and not through our own efforts. Breastfeeding fasts are my most difficult ones. As soon as the baby latches, I get thirsty. It’s a normal, natural healthy body prompt. In Ramadan, I override it.”
Try and busy yourself with dhikr (remembrance of Allah)and Qur’an recitation.
Stay Hydrated This means filling up on water and avoiding drinks with caffeine and carbonated liquids like soft drinks. These drinks may aid dehydration. Stick to water, herbal teas and fresh fruit juices.
Saraah, a mom of three from Cape Town, says that when she breastfed her baby, she stayed hydrated morning and evening. She also drank ginger tea, which is a healthier alternate to sugar- and caffeine-laden drinks.
Also do not try to drink all your liquids at Suhoor or Iftaar but rather space it out over the period. Set up a hydration schedule and try to drink every hour in moderation, overnight. Also don’t just fill up on liquids, it is still very important to get your nutrients and calories from your food.
Get Help. A few days before the fast, write up a schedule and discuss with family members how they can help you with chores. You can even start a support group with breastfeeding sisters in your area. Getting together and helping one another is a great way to get the Ramadan spirit going. If you are a working woman, sit and rest every once in a while during the day.
Activities for Older Children. Breastfeeding while having other children is a challenge in itself, and the challenge is even more during fasting. Plan activities to keep the older children busy during the day. Have an activity box made up before the fast. Stock this with arts-and-crafts materials, coloring books, and storybooks.
You cannot spend all your time doing activities together, and it can be hard work for some kids to remain focused and attentive for long periods. That does not mean you cannot set them up for an enriching Ramadan, even while you are busy breastfeeding. There are many Islamic activities and books out there, so that even in their playtime they can be engaged and learning.
Plan Your Meals. While a set menu will not work for every family, some mothers have found that preplanning at least some meals of the week saves them a lot of time. This ensures that the week starts with all those ingredients, and even when things crop up, like an unexpected appointment, they are not completely derailed because some meals are already accounted for.
You can also take a break from cooking by inviting others over for potluck-style iftaror by attending family or community iftars.
Rest and No Stress. Brooke Benoit, fellow writer and mom of six, says, “‘Do less and be less stressed as stress reduces milk’ is a great tip, but what mom ever listens to that?” She always feels that Ramadan is a great time to master the art of the Sunnah nap.
Resting is important to keep your energy levels up and your stress levels down. And a well-rested mom means she will be able to perform her `ibadah [act of worship] and feed her baby.
What to Eat?
Most moms wonder what they should eat or if there are special foods to increase their milk supply. There are no strict rules on that. As long as mothers are eating a well-balanced, healthy diet, they should not experience any problems.
However, there are some kinds of recommended foods:
1- Dates: The best form of sahur is dates according to the hadith of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).
2- Fresh Fruit: Prepare fruit salad and refrigerate the night before to save time and energy.
3- Green Smoothie or Juice: Green foods increase the fat content of breast milk and boost your energy. Collards, spinach, kale, wheat grass, or any other green, leafy vegetables can be juiced or chopped into smoothies. Spirulina, kelp, barley grass, alfalfa leaves, and herbs are also great green foods to add to your morning drink.
4- Oatmeal: Oats are one of the most nutritious foods; they contain proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Oats can also be prepared in advance for sahur.
Finally, it is advisable for all mothers to continue breastfeeding frequently during Ramadan, both while fasting and after having broken the fast—during the day and at night, and even when they feel that their breasts are “empty.” Milk removal is what drives supply.
Breastfeeding is a miraculous process and mothers should continue to fulfill the obligation if they are able to do so even while fasting. May Allah make it easy on all mothers this Ramadan. Ameen
First published: June 2015