The Duration of Nursing

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Islamic Medicine
Staff member
By Prof. Hassan Hathout

The following verse of the Quran bears more than one context, but it is the only Quranic source relating to the duration of breast-feeding, and we will render some exegesis to follow it.

The mothers shall give suck to their offspring for two whole years for whoever desires to complete the term of lactation. But the father of the baby shall bear the cost of their food and clothing on equitable terms. No soul shall have a burden laid on it greater than it can bear. No mother shall be pushed into stress on account of her child. Nor father on account of his child. An heir shall be chargeable in the same way. If they both decide on weaning, by mutual consent, and after due consultation, there is no blame on them. If you decide on a foster-mother for your offspring, there is no blame on you, provided you pay (the mother) what you offered, on equitable terms. But fear God and know that God sees well what you do." (2:233)

The verse comes in a succession of verses discussing rulings on divorce, and aims at safegarding the rights of the baby at a time when the strained relation between its parents is frought with the risk of jeopardizing his interests. The beginning of the verse, however, is unanimously taken to be of universal application, whether the parents are divorced or not, with regards to the duration of lactation. It denotes that the complete course of lactation is two complete years, but does not make this duration obligatory; rather subject to the choice of the parents. Special privileges are decreed to the divorced wife towards the ex-husband in lieu of breast-feeding their child.

Even if the husband dies, his heirs should see that these privileges are answered. Priority should go to the welfare of the baby, and this should not be manipulated by father or mother to put one another in duress. The decision on weaning the baby is alright but should be by mutual consent and consultation between the two of them seeking the best interests of the baby. If it is decided that a wet-nurse should be hired by the father to suckle the baby, this should not be a reason to forego his divorced wife's rights that he might owe. The ultimate iflspiration should be the regard of God and the awareness that He is is in full vision of what we do, rather than the resort to legal tricks as many in such circumstances might be tempted to slide into. This verse of the Quran concurs with another that reads:

"And we have enjoined on man to be good to his parents. In travail upon travail did his mother bear him and in two years was his weaning. Show gratitude to Me and to your parents: to Me is your final goal." (31:14)

In conjunction with a third verse the age of fetal viability was deduced, ie the minimal acceptable duration of pregnancy that would result in a viable baby. The Quran reads :

"We have enjoined on man kindness to his parents. In pain did his mother carry him and in pain did she give him birth. The duration of conception until weaning is thirty months." (46:15)

The first reported legal application was the case of a woman giving birth to a viable baby six months after she was married. She stood for trial by Othman (third caliph) and it was Ali-ibn-Ali-Talib (fourth calif and the prophet's cousin) who quoted those verses, subtracting the duration of suckling ie twenty four months from the combined conception-to-weaning period of thirty months, leaving six months as a legitimate duration of viable pregnancy, and the woman was thus vindicated from the charge of adultery. It was also suggested by some scholars that after a nine months pregnancy the full suckling period may be taken as twenty months only, to be extended if the baby was born prematurely. It is noteworthy that such proposed time for weaning coincides with the stage of the child's development when it is equipped with enough milk teeth to permit eating and at the same time make breast sucking quite uncomfortable to the mother.
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