Children can be initiated into fasting during Ramadan if parents pay close attention to their constitution and eating habits. A gradual approach is the best way to help children understand the importance of fasting.
During Ramadan, many children also observe the fast. As they are young and getting accustomed to this discipline, it is important that they be taught the correct way to do so, especially when Ramadan occurs during the hot summer months. An active lifestyle, rising mercury and the demands of a growing body make children more susceptible to illness and fatigue during summer.
Children are not required to fast during Ramadan before the onset of puberty. However, some parents may encourage them to fast for a few days so they can mentally and physically get accustomed to the discipline and grow up knowing the values of the worship of fasting.The question is how long a child should fast, especially when Ramadan falls in summer leading to a longer day.
This Ramadan, the sawm (fasting period) stretches for nearly 15 hours. Given that children are in a constant growth mode, developing bones, muscles and blood, needing more nutritious foods in proportion to their size (than adults) and that these foods have to be given in small and frequent amounts throughout the day”, the issue of fasting requires a parent to pay attention to the child’s constitution.
This is compounded by the fact that many children have poor appetite and eat a limited number of foods or dilute their diets significantly with lesser nutrient foods. Children who have a weak constitution might not be able to fast. Similarly, children who are used to eating frequently or are extra active through the day can find fasting difficult. Determining the child’s ability to fast is the responsibility of parents.
Common sense is a good place to start with and all parents should have a pragmatic approach to monitoring a child’s fast:
Get your child accustomed to eating smaller meals throughout the day before Ramadan to help them control their temptation to eat large meals.
Closer to Ramadan, ease children off the number of meals a day so that their mind, body and appetite are all in tune for the coming fasting period.
Be gradual in the way you initiate them into the month of fasting. In the beginning, children below ten years can be encouraged to fast until 10am. Then the period of fasting can be extended to the time of the noon prayer, and then until the time of the evening prayer.
Keep them well hydrated during the non-fasting hours by giving them plenty of fluids. This is very important.
It is also important to have a proper suhour (morning meal during Ramadan) so the children are able to undertake the task of fasting throughout the day successfully. The suhour meal should be such that it keeps them going for the day. So a selection of slow-digesting fibre-rich foods such as wholewheat cereals, fruit and vegetables are an essential part of the meal.
In the days prior to the fasting, gradually cut down on their consumption of salt and sugar as these increase thirst and cravings. Do not cut back on these all of sudden as it could lead to headaches, stomach aches and a general feeling of discomfort.
Avoid forcing your children to overeat, since this may cause indigestion and bloating. Avoid giving them too many fried and spicy foods. They may increase gastric acidity.
Avoid consumption of carbonated drinks during iftar (time of breaking fast) as these drinks can produce gas and cause discomfort.
Glucose is the body’s primary fuel source and is derived from the food we eat. When denied glucose for more than four to eight hours, the body turns to the liver for glycogen for fuel.
This fuel will last for up to 12 hours before the body needs to turn to glycogen stored in the muscles. If glucose is still denied, muscle wasting is prevented by temporarily switching to fat as the fuel source. This is what happens in a fasting state. So if the child is fasting only for a part of the day, his body can cope well and thus he can successfully fast throughout the month.
If a child is on prescription medication, the dosage of the medication has to be specially regulated during the fasting period. When no foods are introduced into the body, medications are absorbed at a much higher rate and can actually do more harm than good. It is important that you speak to your doctor before making your child fast. Ideally, it is preferred that these children do not fast but they may be keen to do so as they see other children their age observing the fast.
The advantages of fasting
How do children benefit from fasting? In addition to learning patience, tolerance, strengthening their will and increasing their perseverance, fasting works as a multidimensional experience in which a total body transformation occurs. During fasting, the body cleans its system because it is not expending energy through its digestive organs. The blood is detoxified.
The release of toxins from the colon, kidneys, bladder, lungs and skin clears out complications that have arisen from a bad diet and an unhealthy lifestyle. Children who are introduced to fasting at a young age can reap more benefits from this spiritual and physical experience.
The ground rules remain the same for older children. The body must be well nourished and well hydrated throughout Ramadan. Regardless of gender, physical and mental demands, eating reduced quantities of food during Ramadan doesn’t have any adverse effect if the diet is balanced. As long as children eat a variety of food in moderation during suhour and iftar, they can undertake the fast and carry on with your normal routine without any problem.
What kind of foods are a good choice?
- Experts have been saying for a while that the new way to health is to eat a variety of coloured foods. Here are some good reasons to pack more colour in the meals of children (this advice works for adults too):
- Red foods such as strawberries, watermelon, pomegranate and tomatoes contain lycopene and ellagic acid – natural substances that guard and protect our cells against heart disease and some cancers.
- Blue and purple foods such as blueberries, purple cabbage, and grapes contain resveratrol, a potent antioxidant that protects our arteries from heart disease.
- Even white foods have value. Garlic, onions, mushrooms and cauliflower contain allicin and quercetin – substances that may defend the body against inflammation.
- The best way for kids to get all the energy and protein they need is to include a variety of protein sources in meals and snacks. While it is easier to have children eat the same meals like adults while breaking the fast, it is better for parents to do some meal planning during Ramadan so their children eat healthy, nutritious food. Given that their constitution is delicate and their rate of burning up energy faster parents need to include fruit, carbohydrates, proteins and a spectrum of vitamins and minerals.