Today marks the beginning of World Breastfeeding Week (1-7 August 2010) organized by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA). I am a strong advocate of breastfeeding. Though I initially found nothing “natural” about it, I was eventually able to teach my newborn how to latch on and suckle properly. Going through the worst of chaffing, cracking and mastitis, I still held firm ground and managed to continue until baby was 15 months old. It drained me both physically and emotionally, but the unique bond I have with her now was well worth it. It is a privilege to be a woman, to bear a child and nurse it. No other relationship makes you feel as entirely responsible as this one.
Some of the many benefits of prolonged breastfeeding for babies are a strengthened immune system, reduced risk of gastrointestinal and respiratory tract infections, reduced risk of allergies, and enhanced development and intelligence. For mothers breastfeeding delays fertility, reduces risk of breast, uterine and ovarian cancers, and promotes post-partum weight loss. The psychological benefits of bonding and skin-to-skin contact with baby are perhaps the best of all.
Having had my baby in the UK, I was genuinely pleased by how the NHS (National Health Service) promoted and encouraged skin-to-skin contact, rooming-in and exclusive breastfeeding on demand for at least six months. It felt very womanly and feminine to go about things au naturel. I was impressed that new mothers were given up to 52 weeks maternity leave, of which they would be entitled to 39 weeks of maternity pay without the jeopardy of losing their jobs (compared to a mere 50 days at half pay in Libya). Some European countries even give working women paid “nursing breaks” throughout the day, or shorter work hours to nurse their children.
We returned to Libya when baby was nearing nine months, and I felt confident that I would be supported by a large-group of like-minded women, who, as Islam recommends, would nurse their children up to their second birthday. I was wrong. I not only found myself among the few who breastfeed past six months, I was also questioned why I had chosen to stay at home with my child rather than to go back to work. “What a waste!” I was told, an educated person doing nothing. Nothing! Seriously! I was also shocked that many women were recommended not to breastfeed in hospitals straight after birth as they believed that the “first breast milk does not fill the baby”. The precious colostrum, possibly the most important feed the baby will receive, is somehow considered inferior. Is this what globalization and “modern” living has brought us to? Have we really lost our identity in the rush to “be more developed”?
The change in attitude towards breastfeeding is significant. Libyan women of generations past would brag of doing so well past two years, or even of nursing children of family or friends when necessary. I wanted to make sure that mine wasn’t just an isolated situation, so I asked our pediatrician. He confirmed my observations, noting the many adverse effects of this trend, namely the increase in childhood obesity and allergy rates. According to a study published in 2007* by Salem Ben-Omran of Garyounis University, Benghazi, although an insignificant 2.3% of babies had not been breastfeed at all, only 21.5% breastfed without being supplemented with formula milk. A majority of babies started solids before 6 months, which can effect lactation.
The average weaning age has been estimated at 6.9 months. The most common reasons given for stopping breast-feeding was an insufficient milk supply or to help encourage their child to eat solids. Other reason’s given were pregnancy, illness of the mother or child, or medical advice. Apparently the level of education and work significantly reduced breastfeeding, converse to the trend observed in western industrialized nations, where well-educated women were more likely to nurse their babies. Apparently a strong purchasing power, and the desire to be more modern also support bottle-feeding over breast-feeding, whereas the educated in the western world are more likely to be aware of the multitude of benefits of breastfeeding further to strong encouragement by their governments to do so.
Perhaps the lack of public awareness and insufficient maternity leave, incorrect medical advice and a backward interpretation of forward thinking all play a role in the decline of breastfeeding. With strong public and social systems, appropriately trained medical staff and community/peer support, this trend can be easily reversed. Let’s make breast milk the number one source of food for babies in Libya again. Our children deserve the best.