Experts say many women start on the right track but then stop breastfeeding too soon.
Mothers ‘should breastfeed for longer’, UAE doctors urge
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding of children until they are six months old, followed by continued breastfeeding, complemented with other foods, until they are two years old or even beyond.
While many mothers are starting off on the right track, they tend to tail off too soon, say experts, who have raised awareness of the issue ahead of World Breastfeeding Week, which starts today.
“At the initiation of breastfeeding, the rates are very good and people are quite keen on doing it but, by six months, the rate has dropped significantly,” said Dr Eeva-Liisa Langille, a consultant paediatrician at Abu Dhabi's Burjeel Hospital.
By six months, a lot of women have stopped or are partially breastfeeding and supplementing their baby's diet with formula milk, she said, adding that this trend was seen in Emirati women and expatriates.
“One big reason is that mothers have to start work so early. So that means you have to be much more committed if you want to continue breastfeeding if you start full-time work,” the doctor said. “In the UAE, there's very rarely an opportunity for mothers to work part time.”
Another factor is a misconception that it is good for babies to have one bottle of formula milk at some point, said Dr Langille.
A lack of knowledge about the importance of continuing to breastfeed also plays a part, she said, adding there were few mothers' groups and some women were not willing to leave home to meet others.
“There is not a systematic way of encouraging mothers and babies to attend any place where they would have the opportunity to discuss problems,” she said, adding that clinics were organised on a hospital-by-hospital basis, and different emirates have different approaches.
“I would like to see regular clinics that are dedicated to health care across the UAE as part of a national programme – not so that you take your child only when the child gets sick but take the child regularly for a follow-up visit at regular intervals.”
Sian Khoury, a registered breastfeeding counsellor, agreed breastfeeding among women in the UAE drops off quickly, but the problem was replicated across the globe.
“The average breastfeeding mother gets nowhere close to two years in the UAE,” she said.
In her experience, this happens because they found it painful and did not have enough support.
“There is very little support, either in the hospital or in the community, of practical help – showing a mother how to breastfeed in terms of how to hold a baby,” said the mother-of-two, who lives in Fujairah. “More than that, it is a perceived feeling of low milk supply – in the vast majority of cases it is not true.”
Ms Khoury said formula was seen as “the norm” by many people.
“If you go back three or four generations, everybody would have breastfed and very, very fast that situation changed,” she added.
Dr Hadia Radwan, who has a doctorate in nutrition, published a study on breastfeeding by Emirati women earlier this year.
Of the 593 women questioned, 98 per cent started breastfeeding but the mean duration of breastfeeding was 8.6 months. While progress had been made in promoting the practice, it needed to go further, Dr Radwan said.
“There is a need for a national community-based breastfeeding intervention programme and for the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding as part of a primary public health strategy to decrease health risks and problems in the UAE,” Dr Radwan said in the report.
Emirati Noura Al Khoori, 31, breastfed her three children and is a La Leche League leader in Abu Dhabi, where the international breastfeeding support group has a branch. “The [breastfeeding] rate falls drastically, even within the first month,” she said in reference to Emirati women.
Reasons include misconceptions that a mother's milk is never enough, and some who have had a difficult birth are not ready for any potential challenges posed by breastfeeding, she said.
World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated annually in more than 170 countries. It is organised by World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, in coordination with numerous partners, including WHO.