Monthly Archives: August 2011

Building Familial Bonds through Milk

I came across this article from the Spoon Foundation.  The author, also an adoptive mother and Muslim, shares how family bonds are built through breast milk.



When I was asked to write this piece, it was just before Ramadan – the annual rite that calls on Muslims to fast from sunrise to sunset for one lunar month (this year falling in August) and one of the main tenants of Islam. It gives families an occasion to think about those less fortunate who are not able to fill their bellies each day and to give charity where one would have spent money on food and drink during the day. It is also a time to bring the family together in the evening for reflection and to share a meal together. It reminded me that as with all adoptive families, we had some issues of feeding when bringing our children home. For example the second, who was older at 12 months, did not like the texture of solids and had to be coaxed to be weaned from bottle feeding. Indeed we went so far as to seek out an early intervention evaluation and had a visit to our home for observation through games and play (but then she began to eat on her own before the first actual therapy session!) However the point of this piece is the very unique challenges of adopting and feeding in the Islamic context where milk relations are equivalent to blood relations so offering breastmilk is highly encouraged when introducing a new member into the family. Indeed the Arabic word for “adoption” is kafalah (literally sponsorship) which comes from the root word “to feed.”

Historically and culturally, milk bonding relationships were very common in the Muslim world and extended family or neighbors would share in suckling children of the same age. This would ensure that a child should evermore have a family to care for them within the wider community if their birth family were unable for whatever reason. Children suckled by the same wet nurse or mother also have a special social relationship such as that they become unmarriageable to one another. In essence it creates a biological relationship although not necessarily maintenance and inheritance rights. However for adoption specifically and to ensure a family’s commitment over the long term and to address potential abuse of the lack of automatic rights, in 2007 it was reported that the General Director of Women’s Affairs, Ministry of Social Affairs in Saudi Arabia went so far as to offer special stipends to women to breastfeed adopted children “to ensure their legal position in the family.”

Islamic law covers all aspects of life, from matters of state, like governance and foreign affairs to issues of daily living. There are several legal schools within the Islamic law tradition that dates back 1500 years and on this topic specifically, there are some different interpretations on how many feedings are needed to establish a family relationship through feeding; five to ten times is the average (and milk can be pumped and fed in a bottle and still qualify for most if the baby can not latch properly). The majority of the legal schools also require that the child be under a certain age, usually two years. Yet one record shows that the Prophet Mohamed (himself an orphan) allowed feeding to be done for older children within the community.

Our first child, a boy, was adopted from Morocco at 6 months of age. At the time I visited a lactation specialist in the US but it was only with the taking of domperidome (which I had to procure from a Canadian pharmacy, none being available locally) and fenugreek and with pumping was I able to stimulate breastmilk. I embarked on this fairly arduous task less to ensure his position in our family, but so that later in life I would not need to wear a head covering in front of him or observe some of the other gender protocols that could come into play when he would reach maturity. Having gone through the experience the first time we knew what to do when his sister came along so that she in turn would not need to veil in front of her father or brother either. Additionally now that the children were now milk bonded, it has made them true siblings (and that you cannot deny if you see how much they fight!) and ineligible to become marriage partners down the road. So the decision to breastfeed in our family was more than just a nutritional good start but laid the groundwork for their cultural and religious upbringing.

The duty to care for orphans is a significant theme in the Quran (the holy book in Islam) and the Prophet is often quoted as saying “I and the sponsor of an orphan will be like this in Paradise” (holding two fingers close together). Since the practice of adoption is just slowly starting to come back as a socially recognizable practice within the Muslim world (with the rates of abandoned children seemingly increasing due to many social problems coming with modernity as well as poverty and conflict), certainly the unique challenges and pleasures of feeding will also come more to the forefront.

Christina Tobias-Nahi
Director of Orphan Nutrition
Joint Council on International Children’s Services