x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Mothers need clear advice, not laws

The FNC suggestion that breastfeeding be part of the child law could have unexpected - and unwanted - repercussions

The FNC is right to see part of its role as protecting the well-being of young Emiratis. And it is right to point out that having a close relationship with the mother is good for the development of young children. But adding the requirement that every child be breastfed for two years to the new child protection law may go beyond the use of laws to regulate social norms, with unexpected, and perhaps unwelcome, repercussions.

Let’s start with the good: by making breastfeeding a right of every child, the law will push Government entities to have nurseries on their premises, which will benefit working mothers. It will also compel the Government to spread awareness of its health and emotional benefits.

Yet while science is clear there are benefits to breastfeeding, it is not equally clear that there are such serious downsides to bottle-feeding. Many millions of children have been raised perfectly healthily that way, or with mixed-feeding (both breast and bottle).

And this is the difficulty with the proposed law. The FNC is seeking more than to advise or suggest best practice – it is seeking to legislate a particular way of raising children.

For a start, every child, like every mother, is different, and what works for one child might not work for another. Ditto for mothers: there are many for whom breastfeeding is not a viable option, either for physical reasons or because of time or work commitments.

By suggesting there is only one correct way of raising children, the FNC is increasing pressure on mothers to do things one particular way. Women already face enormous social pressure to breastfeed and many feel like bad parents if they cannot do so – by enshrining this in law, their self-esteem could be severely affected.

There is a healthy debate to be had about the best use of laws in a rapidly evolving country. Some laws, such as other aspects of the child protection law, seek to criminalise particular acts. Others, such as laws enforcing smoking bans indoors, seek to change behaviour in a positive direction. But there should be a distinction between what is advisory and what is legislated. Laws work best when there are few of them and they are all equally enforced. There are many ways to live and, in general, the legal framework should not choose the best way for people to do so. Like economic regulation, legislation works best with a light touch.