One of the most important responsibilities a Muslim woman has towards her children is to nourish their minds, bodies and souls with her milk for a period of two years. Her reward for this is so great that if she dies during this period she dies with the status of a martyr. In an age when we see many women choosing to feed their babies powdered milk formula in plastic bottles as a sign of "modernity," we should make an effort to educate ourselves about the unique benefits of breastfeeding so that we do not deprive ourselves and our children of this extraordinary opportunity to gain the pleasure of Allah, Most Glorious.
First of all, every woman's milk is uniquely suited to meet the needs of her own baby. For example, the milk will be richer in the event of a premature birth, helping the baby to make up for his small size. The composition of the milk also changes from feeding to feeding and as the baby grows in order to meet the baby's nutritional needs at each stage of his development. In addition, breastmilk contains at least 100 ingredients and nutrients not found in formula, and these are essential in providing immunities to disease, protection against allergies and prevention against ear infections, digestive disorders and various other ailments common among bottle-fed children. Cow's milk, on the other hand, contains high concentrations of proteins and hormones which are necessary for baby cows to grow normally but which are too rough for a human baby's delicate system.
If this is not enough motivation, breastfeeding is also good for mothers. In the days immediately following birth, the baby's suckling helps the mother's uterus to contract to its normal size. Many women do not get pregnant while breastfeeding (although a small percentage do), so this serves as a natural method of birth control and way of spacing apart children. Breastfeeding women typically regain their pre-pregnancy figures more quickly than other women and are much less prone to breast cancer later in life. Breastfeeding saves money (you never need to buy special equipment), and so long as the baby is feeding regularly and enthusiastically and growing at the rate appropriate for his age, you never need to worry about how much you are feeding him because he will determine the right amount of milk to drink on his own.
Some women express their breastmilk and store it in the refrigerator so that other caretakers can be assigned to feed their babies with the aid of bottles. While these babies get some of the nutritional goodness of their mothers' milk, they miss out on all the emotional and psychological comforts of breastfeeding which are just as important as the physical benefits. The act of breastfeeding creates a special bond between mother and child as it requires the mother to embrace her child several times each day. The babies, in turn, find comfort in their mothers' arms and learn to trust that they have a safe place to go for love and sustenance. In the period of two years, something special has undoubtedly taken place between mother and child.
It is rare these days to find women who breastfeed their children for two whole years as recommended in Islam. Attitudes have changed, and many women have been convinced that powdered formula (a manufactured drink!) is better than their own milk! May all women reflect upon Allah's greatness and have confidence in their ability to produce milk in order to nourish their children in the best possible manner. Do not ever forget that formula is a 20th-century invention and that babies since the beginning of time have thrived without it. What's more, the main motivation of the formula industry is to make money while the supposed "convenience" of bottle-feeding has pushed women into the workplace and away from their responsibilities as mothers.