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Is the UAE's new breastfeeding law realistic?

The UAE’s new law on breastfeeding, which makes it compulsory for women to breastfeed their babies for two years, has taken the international headlines by storm. But what will it mean for new mothers in the UAE? Joanna England investigates

Image Credit: Getty Images
Aquarius

Before my oldest child was born 
eight years ago, I wondered what 
all the breastfeeding fuss was about. Women, I naively figured, were designed to feed their babies. 
So why would anyone have issues with it?

Then reality struck. Far from being a bonding experience, I found breastfeeding agonising and exhausting. A big and colicky baby, my son also had a super-sensitive gag reflex, which meant more often than not, rather than feed him my breastmilk, I wore it post-digested and Damien Hirst-style. Depressed, sleep-deprived and with a baby who never stopped crying, I threw in the towel after four months and turned to formula.

Fast-forward to baby number three, and 
I had breastfeeding cracked. But those initial dark days of struggling with my first child had shown me unequivocally that first-time nursing mothers need kindness, support and assistance – not the threat of legal action should they meet with difficulties.

Apparently, I am not alone when it comes to being defeated by breastfeeding. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that, “Globally, less than 40 per cent of infants
under six months of age are exclusively breastfed. Adequate breastfeeding counselling and support are essential for mothers and families to initiate and maintain optimal breastfeeding practices.”

Indeed, mother’s forums and Facebook threads across the globe have been white hot with debates on the pros and cons of the UAE’s newest clause in its Child’s Rights law. The Federal National Council (FNC) approved legislation that announced all ‘able’ women are required by law to breastfeed their babies, by whatever means necessary, for the first two years of life. To not breastfeed could even result in a husband suing his wife.

As yet, no plans have been announced to amend maternity leave of working women, which allows for 55 days of leave in total – 
45 of which are paid – in six emirates of the 
UAE. In Sharjah, new mums get 60 days of maternity leave.

When stripped down to the basics, the clause does appear to be alarming. But should we really all be panicking?

Midwife educator and long-term UAE resident Cecile De Scally thinks not. She believes the new regulations are a very ‘positive move’ and a step in the right direction for promoting breastfeeding. But, she concedes, much more needs to be done for mothers 
so they can continue to feed their babies.

“I think it’s an amazing step the UAE Government has taken – but I don’t think the practicalities have been thought through,” she says. “To make this law workable much more support needs to be implemented.”

Support network

Cecile believes the lawmakers should work with UAE midwives and breastfeeding experts so that the difficulties new mothers are faced with are properly understood.

“As community experts who are dealing with new mothers every day, we’d be happy to give our advice on ways to help mums breastfeed longer. Once the complexities of the situation are understood, the law could then be taken to the next level.”

She explains, “It’s important to recognise the challenges mothers face – such as 45 days paid maternity leave. As a business owner, 
I know it’s not always easy for companies to pay out for mums to take six months out 
of their jobs. But there are other ways in which the situation could be eased so that returning to full-time work after just six weeks – a time when for many, breastfeeding has only just been properly established – 
isn’t the only option for new mums.

“Job sharing and offering mothers the option to work part-time would help a lot. More companies could look at flexitime, and even allow mums to work from home if 
their roles permit it.”

Cecile says companies need to be more accommodating. “It always amazes me that businesses are so unhelpful to feeding mums,” she says. “If you told the CEO of a large corporation he had to eat his lunch in the men’s toilet, he’d be understandably horrified. Yet many nursing women are forced to express breastmilk in the toilets because there are no private spaces for them.”


Improvements in postnatal care

Amy Vogelaar, a midwife and breastfeeding adviser, believes the law cannot be implemented until the basics of postnatal care in the UAE have been addressed. “In my opinion, breastfeeding is very important, and anything that helps mothers to do it is a positive thing. But the notion that it would be an enforceable law in the UAE – and that women could be prosecuted for not following it – well, that really surprised me.”

Postnatal support for mothers in the UAE 
is at best sporadic, says Vogelaar, who points out that there are no national standards when 
it comes to making sure a mother’s health is OK post-birth, let alone her child’s.

“Very often, first-time mothers deliver their babies, spend the required amount of time in hospital, and are then waved off with a ‘good luck!’ from nursing staff. There are no follow-up home visits in those essential first few weeks after birth, and there are very few properly qualified lactation experts to offer new mums advice and support on breastfeeding.”

But, according to Vogelaar, the problems go deeper than that. She says, “Hospitals in this region have a very high caesarian rate. Experts working in these areas would estimate it is higher than 50 per cent in many hospitals – possibly even as high as 80 per cent. When women deliver by caesarian section, they find breastfeeding much more challenging because their bodies have been through extreme trauma, which disrupts their hormone levels.

“As well as making feeding their babies very awkward and painful, this hinders milk production. So you have a situation where breastfeeding is made difficult to establish from birth and then hindered by poor-to-zero aftercare for mother and babies.”


Added challenges

“I believe this move will be positive,” says Cecile. “But right now, there are too many unanswered questions. Firstly, is it all mothers or only Emiratis? And while two years is stated, I very much doubt that means exclusive feeding for the entire time. I would take it to mean some breastfeeding – especially after six months, as by this time, infants are taking their nutrition from lots of other sources.”

And while she is in favour of encouraging mums to breastfeed, she does still have concerns.

She says, “I don’t think punishing women for not breastfeeding is the way forward. Right now, the UAE has a chance to shine internationally and enable mums to feed their babies for much longer periods through sensible support and new guidelines. So they could look progressive, but if not carried out properly, they could end up looking the opposite. Only time will tell which way this one will go.”

 

Fact Box

Know your maternity rights

  • The new clause in the Child’s Rights Law approved by the Federal National Council (FNC) states that all children of able mothers have the right to be breastfed until two years of age. A refusal to comply with that right could potentially result in prosecution. No measures for enforcing the new clause have been announced as yet.
  • Currently, women in six emirates are entitled to a total of 45 days paid maternity leave (calendar days – not working days). A further 10 days of unpaid leave can then be requested. In Sharjah women are entitled to 60 days. UAE companies must provide nursing mothers with up to two half-hour slots per day for breastfeeding for a period of 18 months after their delivery.
  • Numerous studies prove breastfeeding for up to two years protects mothers from breast and uterine cancers, and provides infants with health benefits. The WHO (World Health Organization) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and supplementary breastfeeding for two years.

There is a wide range of breastfeeding support available to mothers in the UAE.

Breas tfeeding Q&A UAE
A Facebook page dedicated to supporting mothers who choose to breastfeed.

La Leche League
A local division of an international non-profit organisation offering support, information and monthly meet-ups for breastfeeding mothers. Email noura.laleche@gmail.com, or marieclaire.laleche@ gmail.com.

Breast Feeding Friends
This group offers three support lines that are available seven days a week (10am to 10pm), in three languages (English, Arabic and Urdu). They also offer one-on-one support and have breast pumps for hire. Email mothersupport@ bffriends.org, or call 050 868 4417.

Human Milk For Human BABIES UAE (HM4HB UAE) 
An initiative to enable mothers to share breast milk amongst themselves. Find them on Facebook

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