ABU DHABI // Health experts are urging the Government to double the amount of time that working mothers are allowed to breastfeed their babies. Expressing concern at the number of women who relied on formula milk, the experts also gave warning that it could expose babies to health risks. The call for longer statutory breaks - from one hour per day to two for the first 18 months after giving birth - was among 12 recommendations submitted to the Government, as well as the other governments of the GCC, following a conference in Al Ain last month on breastfeeding. The document was submitted under the patronage of Sheikha Shamsa bint Suhail, wife of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE.
It was supported by the World Health Organisation's International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes, which collaborated in the conference. The document recommends that women exclusively breastfeed their babies for six months and continue to use it as a complementary method for two years. It also calls for an extension of paid maternity leave, from 45 days to at least 14 weeks. The document says makers of formula milk should stop making false claims in advertisements that enticed mothers and health professionals away from breast milk as the best and healthiest option. Health warnings should be placed on formula tins, it says.
"There are all kinds of health claims, which is not only misinformation for the public but also for healthcare professionals," said Dr Khalid Iqbal, a neo-natal doctor and lactation consultant at Dubai Hospital. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), while more than 90 per cent of women leave the hospital breastfeeding, only 34 per cent of mothers continue to do so. Rates of formula use in the UAE have almost doubled in the past few decades.
"The evidence is compelling that babies fed formula will have more diarrhoea, more respiratory tract infections, and it can lead to chronic illnesses with long-term effects, such as diabetes," said Dr Iqbal. He said formula companies made claims that were not scientifically proven, confusing new mothers as well as doctors and nurses. Some were led to believe that formula was as good as, or better than breast milk, said Dr Iqbal.
The Ministry of Health said all advertisements related to health, including formula, underwent rigorous consultation before being publicised. "This is a very sensitive topic because we are promoting breastfeeding," said Mohammed Almarzoqi, the ministry's deputy director of advertising. For some women, the use of breast-milk substitutes allows them to return to work. "Most companies don't have a private place for the mother to breastfeed," said Dr Moza Ali Saleh al Kuwaiti, the head of family medicine at Al Ain Hospital. "Baby-friendly" companies would improve staff morale and support mothers going back to work, Dr al Kuwaiti said.
Aisha al Aryani, 25, started feeding her baby formula milk when she returned to her job as an executive assistant at Al Ain Hospital. She found that an office environment was not conducive to breastfeeding. There is no nursery for staff members in the hospital and there are no places where Ms al Aryani can express milk that are hygienic and private. She is allowed to leave work one hour early so that she can feed her three-month-old son.
"My son needs to be fed four or five times a day and I give him formula," she said. "I would take more time off if it was possible. It would give me a longer chance to give my son milk from my breast and not formula." Her first two sons were breast- fed, but her work schedule now does not allow her time to express her milk. It takes about 30 minutes at regular intervals during the day. Although she has her own office, she finds the idea of using it to express milk embarrassing. She also dislikes the idea of locking herself in a bathroom stall. "I feel too shy to do it during working hours," said Ms al Aryani. "We should have a special place."