Joumana Saber has been breastfeeding her daughter Tara, who just turned two, since birth.
She had always wanted to, believing it to be the healthier option. In the hours and days after her birth, nurses worked with Saber to ensure she felt secure and confident in feeding her child. Since then she has witnessed many benefits to breastfeeding, from bonding with Tara to boosting her overall health.
“I noticed that my daughter never suffered from constipation, which I believe is because she’s breastfed, and now eats a very healthy, balanced, whole-foods plant-based diet,” says Saber. “I chose to breastfeed my child because I did not want to give her formula or cow’s milk.”
Saber also attended support groups, which she says “make a lot of difference.” While other may women give up trying to breastfeed, or stop due to conflicting advice of health professionals or having to return to work, Saber feels the UAE makes it easier for mothers due to the availability of mother and baby rooms in public places.
“It is time for us to normalize breastfeeding,” she says. “It is the natural way to feed your child and is perfectly fine to do so into toddlerhood.
She advises women to seek the help of experts if there are problems, before giving up.
Breastfeeding is believed to be essential to child nutrition and the prevention of chronic disease, according to the World Health Organization.
And just last year the UAE Cabinet passed a law requiring strict packaging rules for baby formula, with labels that must clearly specify that it is not a substitute for breastfeeding.
Yet despite big efforts by health authorities and the federal government, new research shows work to encourage new mothers in the UAE that the healthiest and best option for their babies is breastfeeding has not increased the number of women who actually breastfeed.
Academics at the University of Sharjah have found that just 24 percent of women breastfeed exclusively up to six months, short of the global average of around 40 percent, according to a report by UNICEF and the WHO.
It’s also the same percentage found six years ago when Dr Hadia Radwan first studied the issue in the UAE. She started a much more detailed, expanded and long-term study into the issues of breastfeeding, and maternal and child health two years ago.
“I think the new law will help change things,” she said. “But as the research continues over the coming years, we will be able to better understand this.”
Dr Radwan said health authorities have made huge strides to encourage and educate new mothers, but still much more needs to be done.
“The healthcare professionals are really supporting mothers as much as they can, with many activities and a lot more education across the hospitals and health centres,” she said.
The two-year study, funded by the University of Sharjah and the Al Jalila Foundation, began with 256 Arab women from Dubai, Sharjah, and Ajman when they were pregnant in their third trimester and continued until their children were two years old. Due to attrition over time, bout 120 women remain.
It is one of the first such studies of its kind in the country, a first step toward examining links between breastfeeding and maternal and new baby health, with the first 1,000 days of a baby’s life seen as the most crucial to breast feed for healthy development.
Of the cohort, 64 percent of the mothers did some breastfeeding up to 12 months and 46 percent up to 18 months – although not exclusively.
The question remains, why aren’t more women breastfeeding, and for longer?
While working mothers found it hard to continue, Dr Radwan still has only anecdotal reports — and no firm evidence — on why so many non-working women stop feeding and turn to formula.
“Some say the milk isn’t enough, or the baby is still hungry, or they can’t get the baby to latch on, and some even fall pregnant while breastfeeding, which of course stops the ability to continue feeding,” she said.
The positive impact of breastfeeding on infant health is well-documented. Babies who are exclusively breastfed show lower serum insulin and fasting blood sugar levels, as well as lower inflammatory markers, meaning they are less prone to diabetes and obesity, and other such chronic disease.
Babies’ weight has been seen to “sharply increase” when breastfeeding ceases, says Dr Radwan, increasing more than what would be recommended as healthy after the first six months.
“When we see such sharp increases in growth, it means we have to be careful,” she says. “As they might continue this way, meaning they are much more prone to becoming overweight or obese.”
When the babies in her study are three years old, their height and weight will be measured again to analyze this development over a period of time.
“We still have a lot of data to go through, but what we have is amazing, and it will help form a strategy for the UAE,” said Dr Radwan. “We are looking the early warning signs. Breast-fed babies in the long run will grow better, have better immunity and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.”
Bonding, a healthy baby and practicality are reasons Emily Fox cites for exclusively breastfeeding her daughter Clara for 17 months. She would encourage other new mothers to do the same, saying having breastfeeding consultants in almost every hospital in Dubai makes the process a lot more manageable for mothers.
“I have seen the health benefits that come with breastfeeding both physically and mentally and emotionally for both Clara and I,” says Fox. “I lost all of my baby weight within a few months after giving birth, even though I ate like a horse. Clara has had the odd cold in the last 17 months and has suffered a bit with teething, but I found that breastfeeding has really acted as a soother and possible pain reliever for her during those times.
“I would absolutely recommend breastfeeding to other moms mainly because I will always hold those many nights where it felt like it was only me and Clara in the world so close to my heart. They are such simple moments which I will never forget, knowing that I was all Clara needed and I really felt like a mom.”
She says there can be many obstacles to keeping the momentum of feeding. For other mothers, that can mean going back to work, although Fox took one year off to stay at home with her daughter.
Having a supportive environment and network is vital, she says. “I had a tremendous amount of support around me, friends and family who encouraged me and my husband, who loves to cook, made me a lot of food as you do need to eat a fair amount of healthy and nutritious food to produce a lot of milk.”
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