World Breastfeeding Week

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”?

According to UNICEF, Libyan women are half as likely to continue to nurse their children past 12 months, compared to women from the rest of the world and the Arab region.

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.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. enaas says:

    as usual the article was interesting and well written,i must say that what you wrote is true to a certain limit,but i think that things are changing now due to incresed awareness and of course to certain people its more economic and less headache of sterelising bottles, but i have noticed that a certain group of people try to avoid breast feeding,but i have a small correction to make,as i am a oral surgeon with considerable medical background i know for sure that its a myth to say that breastfeeding delays fertility coz it doesent, and as a mom of two myself,i must say that when i had my son i was breastfeeding him the whole time and i got pregnant with my second when he was 8 months although i continued to breastfeed him untill i was 3 months pregnant,but with my daughter i had pregnancy toxemia and she was born premature in her 7th month and was hospitalized and although i was pumping milk which was fed to her via tubes and was kangerooing her daily,i must say that despite all my efforts, when she was 5 months my milk dried although i tried everything from doctors stuff to midwives recipes,grandma stuff..ect, but it seems that the stress had its final say in this matter,but hamdullah i must say that even with the formula she is doing well and that her health is good and we have our bond..but i still wish that i could have breastfed her as well and that the guilt will be there no matter what…

  2. Thank you Enaas as always for being actively involved in the We Are Food project. Your correction on delayed fertility is noted, I cannot argue with an expert:) I’m sorry to hear your agonizing story with breastfeeding, especially with your daughter. Humdullilah she is much better now. It must be horrible for mothers who want to breastfeed and are just physically unable to. I think the choice to breastfeed or not rests solely on the mother. I cannot criticize those who choose not to so long as their decisions are based on the facts. But I do question those who still believe that formula milk is superior, or that breastfeeding is vulgar and uncivilized.

  3. Leila says:

    A great article indeed !
    To breastfeed or not that is the question !
    From my own experience it usually has to be tackled by the mother in question . She not only has to see what great advantages for better health in both cases ;mother and child,are achieved let alone the bonding.
    What is happening in Libya ,is the mere fact that women are on the go too much and this breastfeeding issue has become something of a past era.It takes guts and awareness to come to terms with such a decision.
    From a mother of 5 breastfed children to you ,my compliments!

    1. Thank you Leila, and well done on breastfeeding five!

  4. Great graphics again Sarah. Are they yours?

  5. I did draw the graphics myself, thanks. They are based on the international breastfeeding symbol, thought I’d play with it to illustrate the UNICEF statistics.

  6. Haitam Alageli says:

    Thanks Sarah for addressing such an important topic. I think that Libyan’s maternity law can be interpreted as women should not work! And children are subhuman.
    Your article should be posted on http://WWW.GPC.GOV.LY، so GPC female members (if there is any) can understand that even Libyan kids have rights to a proper food.

    1. Thanks for your remark Haitam. Perhaps someone at the GPC is reading this as we speak!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s