Breastfeeding in the UAE Image Credit: Supplied

It’s a breastfeeding friendly place and city

“The UAE has positively progressed in providing evidence-based care and support for breastfeeding families,” says Dru Campbell, head midwife and lactation consultant at HealthBay Polyclinic in Dubai. “Several hospitals in the UAE have obtained the gold standard from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nationals Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in successfully gaining Baby Friendly Status and there are many other health care facilities who are currently working towards obtaining this initiative.”

Baby Friendly Hospitals adhere strictly to the ten steps of successful breastfeeding as described by WHO, explains Dru, “which include policies such as facilitating immediate and uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact between mum and baby after birth, and supporting mothers to initiate breastfeeding as soon as possible, among others. There is substantial evidence that implementing the Ten Steps significantly improves breast feeding rates.”

New mothers have paid maternity leave

“One of the biggest barriers to a longer duration of breastfeeding is mothers having to return to work very quickly after birth,” says UAE-based American lactation consultant Amy Vogelaar. The UAE currently has six weeks of paid maternity leave for new mothers working in the private sector, while those working in the public sector are entitled to three months of paid maternity leave. “In a perfect world, all mothers would have at least six months’ paid leave to stay home and get breastfeeding really well established before going back to work, rather than the 45 days most women get here. But in my home country of the US, there is no guaranteed paid maternity leave, and mothers often have to go back to work after two weeks or less.” Head midwife and lactation consultant at HealthBay Polyclinic, Dru Campbell, adds, “Government employees have had their maternity leave increased to three months. Some private employees can negotiate further time from their employers in view of longer maternity leave than the standard 45 days. This would support a family friendly workplace in which breastfeeding mothers can continue to work, and be given the opportunity and time to be able to fully establish breastfeeding before they recommence employment.

All working mothers have a paid breastfeeding break

One of the laws which really sets the UAE apart for breastfeeding friendliness is a new mother’s entitlement to two, paid, half-hour breastfeeding or expressing breaks during their working day, for the first 18 months after birth. “This can make a big difference when it comes to keeping breastfeeding going after returning to work,” says Amy Vogelaar. “The very fact that these are built into labour law here sets a tone of breastfeeding friendliness compared to many other places.”

Breastfeeding in public is not a problem

Unlike many other cultures around the world where breastfeeding in public is stigmatized or looked down upon, in the UAE feeding your baby – so long as it is done modestly – tends to be hassle-free and seen as a positive thing. “The UAE is definitely more breastfeeding-friendly than my home country, the USA, where mothers are often told to cover up or asked to leave the premises while breastfeeding, and where the right to breastfeed anywhere in any of the 50 states was only very recently defined,” says Amy Vogelaar, UAE-based lactation consultant (IBCLC) and US-qualified midwife, who runs classes on preparing for breastfeeding in the UAE. “While this is a modest culture, I find that breastfeeding is understood to be about feeding babies, and not about sex or immodesty. There are loads of breastfeeding rooms in malls, which is great, but I do not think anyone is ever given a hard time if she breastfeeds in a more public space.” Dru Campbell, head midwife and lactation consultant at HealthBay Polyclinic in Dubai, agrees: “As long as women have their breast tissue covered, breastfeeding in public in the UAE is fully encouraged. Many women use specific breastfeeding covers to ensure privacy and breastfeeding rooms in most malls are fully equipped for breastfeeding mothers to comfortably and safely breastfeed.”

Breastfeeding in public is far more accepted in the UAE than many expat mothers assume, says Amy Vogelaar: “Once you get used to latching your baby and you are past those challenging early weeks or months, latching and feeding discreetly in public is very easy.”

It has banned the advertising of formula

In 2018 the UAE adopted a law regulating the marketing of baby formula, banning its advertising and requiring labels on the products that state it is not a substitute for breastfeeding. The law, drafted based on the World Health Organisation’s international code for marketing breast milk substitutes, was introduced in an effort to encourage mothers to breastfeed their children, rather than use formula.

There is a strong breastfeeding-friendly community

“The rate of mothers who start out breastfeeding is very high here in the UAE, almost 100%, and the assumption is generally that one will try to breastfeed,” says Amy Vogelaar. “There are many ways the UAE empowers women to breastfeed,’ adds Dru Campbell. “This includes hospitals, clinics and private companies who provide evidence based antenatal education in relation to breastfeeding; hospitals offering Baby Friendly care, principles and policies; clinics in the community offering on-going breastfeeding support and groups of breastfeeding women who help each other with tips and advice. There are several breastfeeding support groups which can be accessed on social media. Two very popular groups I am aware of who have Lactation Consultants (IBCLC) assisting with advice are Breastfeeding Q and A, UAE and Breastfeeding Mums in Dubai.

Amy Vogelaar adds: “Paid maternity leave, the breastfeeding hour, and the existence of many lactation consultants and counselors trained by the Dubai Health Authority and other government agencies, many of whom practice in government hospitals and clinics, are all ways in which the UAE empowers women to breastfeed. Sharjah is an amazing example of going above and beyond for breastfeeding--it is an entire breastfeeding-friendly city! I dream of other emirates following Sharjah's example and increasing their support for breastfeeding and truly making it a priority for all who wish to do it.”