Dubai, United Arab Emirates – It is one of the most personal decisions facing any new mother.
But in the UAE, the question of whether or not to breastfeed has in recent months, come under increased public scrutiny, as the country considers enshrining into law the need for mothers to nurse their children until the age of two.
The proposal was added to a child protection bill passed by the UAE’s Federal National Council – an advisory and legislative body – in January, and has since prompted much discussion about breastfeeding as a requirement rather than a choice.
Proponents of the breastfeeding clause have argued that it is a maternal duty and is in the best interest of the child.
Critics, however, have warned of the implications of legislating maternal care. Some women choose to exclusively breastfeed, while many supplement with formula or opt not to nurse at all. Others encounter major difficulties or find they simply cannot breastfeed their child.
With the bill still pending final approval, questions remain regarding how such legislation would be enforced, who it would apply to, and what – if any – penalties there would be for women who do not, or cannot, comply.
I would like it to be enforced, but it has to be backed up with a lot of community support.
There appears to be a lack of clarity over the exact meaning and implications of the clause. During a debate on the law, Mariam al-Roumi, the UAE’s minister of social affairs, raised concerns about the possibility that it could open the door for men to sue their wives if they did not breastfeed their children, Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National reported.
Lina Salhi breastfed her son for two years, a decision she says was driven by her Islamic faith, which encourages women to nurse their children until the age of two. She supports moves to mandate breastfeeding based on her belief that it is the right of all children.
“Personally, I would like it to be enforced, but it has to be backed up with a lot of community support,” said the UAE-based Syrian. “If there was extended maternity leave for mums and lots of community support, then it could be enforced as the right of babies who cannot speak up for themselves. But, you have to invest in the infrastructure for this to be put in place.”
One of the key issues raised through this debate has been what some believe is a lack of institutionalised support for new mothers wanting to breastfeed. Currently in the UAE, the standard paid maternity leave is 45 days, though some are entitled to more. This makes returning to work while continuing to breastfeed a major challenge.
Salhi was supported by her husband and online breastfeeding groups, which she says gave her the encouragement and practical help to get through the difficult periods. But it was something she had to seek out.
“What you need is real community support to get you through,” said the 30-year-old, who is currently expecting her second child. “It’s a science and an art. It might be easy for some people, but not necessarily for everyone.”
Recent national data on breastfeeding rates in the UAE are hard to come by. However, a study published in 2013 by the BMC Public Health journal found that while a majority of the Emirati women surveyed breastfed their infants at birth, only 25 percent exclusively breastfed for six months.
Only about 38 percent of newborns to six-month-olds are exclusively breastfed worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, which views breast milk as the optimal source of nutrition for infants, with benefits for both the child and the mother.
The organisation recommends women exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months of life and continue to two years old, supplementing with solid foods. Nearly all mothers are able to breastfeed according to the organisation, but some women encounter challenges, including coping with low milk supplies, problems with the baby latching or conditions like mastitis (the inflammation of breast tissue), and do not know where to turn.
Authorities are actively trying to encourage higher breastfeeding rates in the emirate of Sharjah, where the Sharjah Baby Friendly Emirate campaign promotes a better environment for breastfeeding mothers from the time their child is born, within hospitals, the workplace, nurseries and in public spaces.
According to Shehnaz Rashid, the campaign’s operations manager, while most women breastfeed their newborns, the drop-off rate in the UAE is extremely high.
“The idea of the [pending] law, I think is to reinforce the idea of how important breastfeeding is and that it is a child’s right to have access to the mother’s milk because of the many benefits,” said Rashid, adding that one of the main barriers to encouraging women to nurse is what she termed as the “aggressive marketing” of baby formula.
“Mothers and society have come under the impression that formula milk is better.”
Umm Mohammed, an Emirati mother-of-two, breastfed her two sons, one for six months and the other for three, a choice she said that was possible with support from her mother and husband.
I don’t agree that breastfeeding should be pushed on people through a law, it needs to be a personal choice.
“I don’t agree that breastfeeding should be pushed on people through a law, it needs to be a personal choice, especially if our religion gives us the choice,” said the 29-year-old from Dubai. “I have lots of friends who tried, but only for very short periods. I only know one person who breastfed for two years.”
Groups advocating breastfeeding have also expressed reservations about the proposed plans to increase breastfeeding rates. The UAE chapter of La Leche League, an international breastfeeding support organisation, welcomed the idea of promoting breastfeeding, but highlighted other possible measures to encourage extended breastfeeding.
“We imagine that this law may be extremely difficult to implement at the current time given a lack of support and information on breastfeeding available to mothers here in the UAE,” the group said in a statement.
For Rashid, proper community support networks are also central to helping nursing mothers and encourage higher breastfeeding rates.
“If the law comes out, there needs to be better support systems available, more awareness and information for mothers,” she said. “The whole community needs to work on the different aspects to enable this law to work.”