“Tofli, Jasadi”: My Child, My Body

Infant Feeding beliefs and practices of Arabic mothers in Australia

By Amanda Rehayem


UTS:Midwifery students Rachel, Judy and Amanda (Source: Anna Zhu)

The theme of World Breastfeeding Week in 2016 focuses on how breastfeeding encourages us to think about how to value our well-being from the start of life, how to respect each other and care for the world we live in.

Breastfeeding has long attracted the interest of health researchers around the world.

Popular topics of research include the long and short-term benefits of breastfeeding for mother and child; how breastfeeding affects the mother-child bond; and how breastfeeding is practised by mothers from diverse cultural backgrounds.

As a large multicultural society, there is an ever-increasing need for culturally based healthcare research in Australia.

In particular, minimal research exists on Australian Arabic women and their beliefs and practices on infant feeding.

My project sought to delve into this topic, recruiting mothers from the Lebanese Muslim
Association (Lakemba), St Joseph’s Maronite Church (Croydon) and St Charbel’s
Maronite Church (Punchbowl) in Western Sydney.

I conducted three focus groups, discussing attitudes to infant feeding with a total of 17 attendees.

Photo:  Dharmacat on Flickr

Most of the participants expressed a strong desire to breastfeed their child, revealing that
breastfeeding is considered “natural” and “normal” within their families.

Participants also described how, in Arabic culture, “fatter” babies are perceived as healthier, particularly in the eyes of older Arabic women.  This perception can lead to over feeding the infant or even introducing formula at an early age.

Another key finding was the importance of Arabic mothers’ relationships with their close female relatives.

Arabic mothers readily seek education and knowledge from their own mothers, grandmothers, aunts and mothers-in-law.

In this sense, infant feeding is a kind of “women’s business”. Breastfeeding mothers are strongly supported by trusted women in the family.


As one mother said:

“Breastfeeding comes with experience, and these women had babies! They
didn’t have one or two – they had six, or seven, or eight or thirteen in my
grandmother’s case.  So it comes with real knowledge of child-raising, and there is a level of trust and respect that you’ve got to give. So as much as I respect my GP, I will also listen to my
grandmother and what she says, definitely.”

It’s clear that breastfeeding really does impact a woman’s life.

Women don’t feel comfortable if they feel that no one understands their beliefs or practices, especially in that vulnerable position of just having had a baby.

I hope out of this research – as clinicians, as midwives, as nurses, policy makers and lactation consultants – we  can work towards increasing culturally competent care.

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