Nurturing Societies Starts at Birth

By Bodour Al Qasimi, Honorary President of Breastfeeding Friends Society

If you are a woman who has breastfed your baby, you will know that nothing beats the experience of meeting your baby’s gaze during this special time. The bond created is unique – a special divine language between mother and infant, without the need for words.  You are communicating physically, mentally, and spiritually with your baby.

As your baby’s tiny hands rest on your body during breastfeeding, their sense of security increases and an everlasting bond is formed. This divine bond is the foundation for a solid and happy family. Strong and happy families are the heart of secure, well-functioning societies.

This is why it’s important to encourage the work being done by various associations such as the Sharjah Breastfeeding Friends Society, which does everything it can to help educate and support women during this precious time. It ties in perfectly with the mission and aims of the UAE National Week of Breastfeeding, which in turn aligns with this year’s World Health Organization’s (WHO) call for making breastfeeding a shared responsibility by all at all levels.

I believe breastfeeding is instrumental to the health and well-being of babies at the start of their lives and for their future development.  There are benefits for mothers too.  Several studies have shown that breastfeeding reduces the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and even breast and ovarian cancers.  This is further evidence that we should communicate its benefits and do everything we can to support mothers during this period.

This centuries’ long wisdom of breastfeeding has been challenged by varying alternatives, particularly the creation of infant milk formulas. Studies have been sponsored to extol its benefits, together with publicity campaigns targeted specifically towards mothers. These campaigns use clever messaging to try and link using milk formula with women’s empowerment and emancipation. To me, these are false prophets.

Now more than ever, the importance of building a healthy immune system is vital.  Breastmilk plays a significant role in developing robust health. In addition, we are living through a pandemic with no end in sight for the time being.  This means we need to do everything we can to strengthen our bodies to fight against infection. 

According to UNICEF, the good news is that COVID is extremely unlikely to be passed onto babies, even if the mother has the virus. Isn’t this a miracle in itself!

A covid infected mother does not need to worry about infecting her baby if she takes certain precautions such as hand washing and wearing a mask while feeding.  The benefits hugely outweigh the very slight risk. A UNICEF spokesperson recently remarked that breastmilk is like a baby’s first vaccine, ‘with all the essential nutrients, antibodies, hormones and antioxidants that help boost their immune system and provide protection against many infections.’

But, despite the multitude of benefits, for baby and mother, some women still face many obstacles to breastfeeding as mothers struggle to find the time and the suitable space to fulfill this natural duty. So, creating comfortable, hygienic, and private spaces for new mothers, whether at the office, or the shopping mall, should be a priority. There is no reason why women should suffer the indignity of desperately searching for somewhere to feed their baby or to express milk. 

In my home of Sharjah, we made making the emirate baby-friendly a priority because human development is an essential pillar of our overall development strategy. Since 2012 we have focused on making it easier for women to breastfeed in healthcare centers and public spaces such as workplaces, museums, restaurants, and parks. The initiative went hand in hand with the WHO’s campaign and is committed to supporting women before and after delivering babies. Sharjah has also made it a priority to train its healthcare workers and even prevented advertising for milk substitutes in healthcare centers. These efforts culminated in Sharjah being recognized as a baby friendly city and officially by UNICEF as Child- Friendly City in 2019. While we are honored with these recognitions, we are most delighted that the number of women breastfeeding their child at six months has tripled over a five-year period. That’s true impact!

I am proud of the work we are doing in Sharjah to support natural breastfeeding. I hope we are setting the right example for other emirates and countries to follow. We believe that “it takes a whole village to raise a child,” as the African proverb goes. Mothers cannot be expected to shoulder all the responsibility for the future health of our nation. We should all support women going through the early years of child-rearing because it is in the interests of society as a whole.  Even though bringing children into the world is extremely rewarding, it can be a very challenging time for women, so everyone, including governments and the private sector, should ensure breastfeeding is an easy and enjoyable experience for mothers.

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