by Fudia Muhammad
With most goals in life, we find greater success when we apply the principle of gradualism. Often, those things that are rushed or done haphazardly in an attempt to seek the path of least resistance or attain immediate gratification, leave us still wanting, unfulfilled or even injured. Gradualism is defined as, “the slow, moderate and measured changes that happen within an organism or society to make a better environmental fit for animals and humans.” This principle is applicable to the nursing mother whose baby has reached the age where he needs to be transitioned or “weaned” off of mother’s milk. Weaning, when done properly is slow and gradual so that both mother and baby are given the adequate time to adjust and neither has to experience any physical or emotional distress.
According to the Holy Qur’an, women are encouraged to suckle (breastfeed) their babies for two whole years (2:233). Interestingly, the Qur’an also reads that the process of weaning takes two years (31:14). Yet, in another verse, it reads, “His mother bears him with trouble and she brings him forth in pain. And the bearing of him and the weaning of him is thirty months…” (46:15). Are these verses contradicting each other? Absolutely not! When we understand the science of weaning and the principle of gradualism, we recognize that the weaning process actually begins at the onset of breastfeeding. And the production of milk begins during pregnancy.
After a mother gives birth and the placenta is expelled, her mammary glands respond by immediately supplying and releasing a substance called colostrum. Colostrum not only provides nourishment for the baby, but it protects the baby against infection and disease because it has an abundance of antibodies, white blood cells, proteins and vitamins. At this point the newborn will nurse every 1½ to 3 hours. Approximately 2 to 4 days later the production of colostrum transitions to mother’s milk. When breastmilk comes in, it is unmistakable to the mother because of the dramatic fullness of her breasts. Mother’s milk can come in with such abundance that if the mother does not nurse her baby frequently her breasts can become engorged and this can be quite painful. So newborn babies will easily nurse 8 to 12 times per day. Babies rarely if ever will nurse as often as they do when they are newborns. By one or two months of age, an exclusively breastfed baby will now nurse about 7 to 9 times per day. Hence, the process of weaning has already begun in early infancy without the introduction of solid food.
In his book, How to Eat to Live – Book I, The Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad wrote, “When you are able to start feeding them [babies] on solid food, give them weak [navy] bean soup – not the highly seasoned, strong soup that you eat. You also can start them out with orange juice and mashed apples. This is done whenever you think the baby is able – after he is about three months old. This depends on the health of the baby and its age.”
We should not introduce any solid food to our babies before three months of age. Babies can often go six months without any solid food at all! The introduction of solid foods is a big part of the continuation of the gradual weaning process. Although breastmilk should still be the babies staple food, a small serving of solid food should replace 1 to 2 feedings of breastmilk. Though the term partial weaning is often used to refer to this part of the process, it is misleading because at a certain age every nursing baby or toddler is partially weaning or partially breastfeeding since at some point milk alone is not sufficient. Weaning is a continuous nonstop process that does not cease until the very last feeding from the breasts. The key to success is incremental steps.
When the baby approaches one year of age, this is the midway point for those who choose to nurse for the recommended two years. At this point our baby is stronger and certainly more mobile. A one-year-old should definitely be beyond nighttime feedings. And though every child is different, sometime between 12-months to 18-months of age he should be eating at least two meals during the daytime hours with breastmilk now gradually serving as a supplement, not the staple – especially if the staple is navy beans. During this time period approximately 60% of the baby’s nutritional intake should come from solid food and 40% from breastmilk.
It is important to mention that gradual weaning is also very important for both the physical and emotional health of the mother. The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan stated, “When baby nurses from mother’s breast, there is satisfaction for the child, not only in the stomach, but in the mind. As the baby is physically fed, the act of nursing produces a chemical reaction in the brain of the child, resulting in contentment. This is manifested in the peaceful countenance you see on a nursing child as it drinks. There is also chemical reaction in the mother’s brain and satisfaction for her as she obtains both relief and pleasure as the milk that fills her breasts is drawn out.” After being physically attached to her baby for nine months during pregnancy and then physically bonded to her baby for two years through breastfeeding, it is not easy for the mother to detach. But what makes it easier for her is if she does not have to stop nursing abruptly.
As the baby approaches two years of age, we have to start doing some math. It takes 2-3 days for a woman’s body to adapt to missing just one feeding. However, more time should be allowed for both mother and baby to adjust to no longer being able to physically bond through the act of nursing. For example, if your 22-month-old is nursing four times a day and the mother would like to stop breastfeeding at exactly 24 months (2 years), then allow eight weeks to complete the weaning process. Drop to only breastfeeding exactly three times a day for the first two weeks. The next two weeks breastfeed only two times each day; followed by only breastfeeding once a day for the following two weeks. Then, for the next seven days breastfeed only once every other day. Finally, the last week the baby will nurse once every third day for a total of two feedings, and after that will never nurse again.
It may be necessary for the mother to manually express her milk each time she skips a feeding so that she can be physically comfortable. However, if weaning is gradual, this should not be necessary for long because the less a mother nurses her baby, the less milk she will produce. This is an example of mother-led weaning. Keep in mind that if the mother does not initiate the weaning process, this will lead to extended breastfeeding – beyond two years. It is not necessary to continue to breastfeed beyond what Allah (God) recommends. There are no additional benefits to breastfeeding beyond two years, in-fact we could inadvertently have a negative impact on our child’s social and physical health.
Another factor to be mindful about is the fact that a small percentage of babies will self-wean before two years of age. This is rare, but it does happen. It is important for the mother to make sure that the factors contributing to the baby’s lack of desire to nurse are not health or diet related. For example, the baby may be teething; or he may have a minor illness, like an ear infection. If this is the case it could be confused with self-weaning. Any drastic changes in the mother’s diet or hormonal shifts like menstruation or ovulation resuming could affect the mother’s milk chemistry. Anything that the mother puts on her skin (soap, lotion, deodorant, perfume) can impact her body chemistry and can alter the milk; or the aroma could be off-putting to the baby. If none of these or similar changes has occurred, then the baby is signaling to his mother that he no longer has a need for her breastmilk, and he can transition to unaltered, pure whole cow’s milk.
The only time we should abruptly stop breastfeeding our babies is in extreme emergencies where the health of the mother requires medication that is not safe for her baby or she is expecting another baby and continuing to nurse could harm the new life. Outside of situations such as these, the slower the weaning process, the better for both mother and baby.
(Sister Fudia Muhammad is a member of Muhammad Mosque No. 64 in Austin, Texas. She is married to Student Minister Robert L. Muhammad and they have been blessed with four children. Sister Fudia holds a Master’s degree in Education – she is a writer, an educator and an advocate for God-centered child-rearing. https://www.givebirthtoagod.com/)