Jamilah Binti Abdul Jamil Dietitian
Watching a child grows up brings bittersweet joy to every parent: sweet joy as the child is spreading his wings and finding his way in this world, with a touch of bitter – just a little! – because it is always hard to watch a child grow up and need you a little bit less each day.
Fasting, and discovering the spiritual joy in the abstinence, is one of the milestones that a Muslim parent would want her child to experience. HealthToday asked dietitian Jamilah Binti Abdul Jamil on how a parent can best introduce the act of fasting into a child’s life.
HT: Ms Jamilah, when is the best age for a child to begin fasting?
JAJ: The parents need to consider several things when introducing fasting to their children. Some children may find it easier to fast, while others, such as those with hyperactivity, may find it more difficult. The parents will be the best people to evaluate if their children are ready to fast or not.
Parents can introduce the idea of fasting and its purpose to their children from as early as 3-4 years old. This is the time when their children will ask many questions such as why the moon is following them when they are in the car, and, no doubt, they will ask their parents why they are not eating. This is a good opportunity to share why, as Muslims, they are required to fast.
Parents can start encouraging their children to fast at age 7, but they should not be too strict about it. Depending on a child’s attitude, general health and nutrition, the child may or may not have an easy time fasting. It is fine if they fast for only half a day – the Malays call this "puasa yang yok". The whole idea here is to give the child a "taste" of fasting and to instil in them the desire to fast during Ramadan.
If the child has health conditions such as type 1 diabetes and asthma, the parents should consult a doctor or dietitian before encouraging the child to fast.
HT: When is the right time for a child to try fasting for the full month?
JAJ: Children should be introduced to fasting in stages.
They can start by fasting for 2 hours a day. Once they have become used to this, the hours can be increased to 4 hours, half a day, and eventually a full day.
If the child is 9 years old (almost reaching puberty) and has successfully practised fasting in previous years, then parents can encourage the child to try fasting for the entire month. However, do not force the child if he cannot do it. Let him try again next Ramadan.
For younger children, let them break their fast early when they show signs of tiredness.
The bottom line here is, parents need to be alert to signs such as the child looking rather tired during the day and be considerate in not forcing the child to do something he is not ready for. The most important thing at the end of the day is the take-home message and values the parents are trying to instil in their children.
HT: How about children who are sickly? What considerations should the parents have in mind while preparing and supporting the child to fast for the first time?
JAJ: Chapter 2 of Al-Quran verse no. 184 makes it explicitly clear that those who have illness or medical condition, and if fasting can be detrimental to their health, are exempted from fasting.
Depending on the type of medical condition and its seriousness, parents should not be demanding about getting their children to fast. They may postpone introducing fasting until a time when the children’s condition is more ready (mentally and physically).
Type 1 diabetes (T1DM):
Children with T1DM are not encouraged to fast. However, a study called EPIDIAR which involved 13 countries showed that 43% of T1DM patients fasted at least for half of the Ramadan month (15 days). Fasting should only be encouraged in children with good glycaemic control and regular blood glucose monitoring at home.
A few studies have shown that it is safe to fast among adolescents with T1DM. Thus, Ramadan fasting is achievable in older children and for those who have had T1DM for a long time.
It is especially important for parents to talk to a doctor, dietitian and diabetes educator before they introduce a child with T1DM to fasting. There are important considerations, such as insulin adjustment, the right eating habits during Ramadan and how to monitor sugar levels and what to do should hypoglycaemia happen.
While fasting, a lack of fluid intake may cause dehydration and dryness of the inner lining of the respiratory airways. In children with asthma, this can worsen the constriction of the airways in the lungs (bronchoconstriction), causing the child to cough, wheeze and experience shortness of breath. Therefore, parents with asthmatic children should discuss with a doctor on whether or not it is safe for their child to fast, as well as to equip themselves with the knowledge on what to do should any complications arise.
HT: How can parents support their children’s effort to fast?
JAJ: First of all, parents need to get the child to understand the purpose of fasting and why Islam wants its "ummah" to fast for a month. Let the child know why fasting is compulsory, and how the child’s daily routine would change during Ramadan. For example, the child would need to sleep earlier than usual to wake up in time for sahur, school may finish earlier too, and they probably will not be able to go to the park or enjoy other activities affected by fasting as often as before.
Also, parents should realise that their children look up to them as role models. Thus, it is important that parents are setting a good example for their children. They should practice sahur, pray on time, drink plenty of plain water between iftar and sahur, eat balanced meals with fruits and vegetable, go for Tarawih prayers, bestowed alms upon the poor, and more.
HT: For children who are fasting for the first full month, what are the good buka puasa habits that the parents can inculcate in the child?
JAJ: Well, parents can do the following.
- Have iftar with the entire family. This will promote greater bonding among the family members.
- Recite doa and break the fast with dates (tamar/rutab) and plain water to follow the sunnah.
- Eat in moderation. Make sure meals are balanced.
- Limit intake of sweetened foods and beverages and high fat foods.
- Teach the children about gratitude.
The following are tips for healthy eating during Ramadan:
- Prepare sahur and iftar meals that promote more satiety (rich in complex carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other food high in dietary fibre).
- These meals should be balanced (containing food from all food groups in the right amounts) and nutrient-dense.
- Eat slowly to avoid indigestion especially at iftar.
- Encourage drinking more water to maintain hydration.
- Limit intake of food that is high in salt or sodium.
Here are some ideas for a healthy Ramadan meal for children, courtesy of Jamilah:
- White rice with grilled chicken/fish and vegetables
- Chicken kebab
- Fish/ chicken porridge
- Vegetable soup with pasta
- Grilled fish with sweet potatoes and vegetables
- Baked beans/ eggs with whole meal toast
- Fruit yoghurt or smoothies
- Oat porridge
- Cereals with milk