Low breastfeeding uptake in UAE leads to calls for longer maternity leave

Unicef study shows that only 34 per cent of mothers exclusively breastfeed in the first six months of their child’s life, six per cent below the global average.

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Below global average figures for breastfeeding in the UAE has prompted experts to call for increased maternity leave for women so they have time to adopt a practice that gives children the best possible start in life.

Global Breastfeeding Scorecard figures released by Unicef and the World Health Organisation to coincide with World Breastfeeding Week showed that only 34 per cent of mothers in the UAE exclusively breastfeed their children under six months of age, six per cent below the global average and 16 per cent below the World Health Assembly target of 50 per cent by 2025.

In the UAE, statutory maternity leave is just 45 days, though local governments have been voluntarily increasing the leave to three months in the cases of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and 60 days for Sharjah Government employees.

Laurence Grummer-Strawn, technical officer at the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at the World Health Organisation and principal investigator of the Global Breastfeeding Scorecard, said the mandatory leave in the UAE was not enough.

"The UAE has little maternity leave of six weeks, which is very short compared to internationals standards,” he said. “The International Labour Organisation recommends 18 weeks, so the UAE is significantly behind when it comes to maternity leave.”

Dr Grummer-Strawn added that 23 countries met their standards for having 60 per cent of children under the age of six months exclusively breastfed and suggested that marketing of formula milk in the UAE should be curtailed.

"From a policy perspective I would put most attention on the fact that they need a stronger code on marketing for formula,” he said.


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The scorecard also revealed that 50 per cent of mothers in the UAE breastfeed their children at one year old but this figure includes those who use a combination of formula, solid foods and breastmilk. In the wider “Eastern Mediterranean” region the figure stands at 69 per cent and, across the world, at 74 per cent.

Globally, 45 per cent mothers are still breastfeeding their children at the age of two, while in the UAE only 29 per cent mothers do so.

Despite the UAE’s below-average figures, the data was collected before 2007, so the country also needs to urgently update its data if it wants to improve its breastfeeding rates.

Vilma Tyler, senior nutrition adviser at Unicef regional office for Middle East and North Africa, worked on the Global Breastfeeding Scorecard.

“The UAE has not done any national nutritional survey in recent years to update this data,” she said.

"We are trying to advocate the need to update data and look at national data as we are seeing an increase in obesity. We see people introducing their children to unhealthy habits like tea or sugar at an early age and this has huge implications on the growth and weight of a child. If not breastfed during the first two years of life, children have patterns of gaining weight.”

In Saudi Arabia, longer maternity leave of 10 weeks is believed, in part, to be responsible for a higher number of mothers breastfeeding - 59 per cent of babies there are being breastfed at one year old.

A country praised for its breastfeeding statistics is Bolivia, where new mothers get 13 weeks of maternity leave. In the South American country, 64 per cent of children under six months are exclusively breastfed and the number rises to 85 per cent for a one year old.

However, Dr Neha Gami, a specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist at HealthPlus Network of Specialty Centres in Abu Dhabi, believes that women can still breastfeed their child even if they are back at work, and urged working mothers to not be put off.

“Once breastfeeding is established, most women are able to continue even when they go back to work,” she said. “Going back to work is not a deterrent.”

She praised moves to extend the time given to women during working hours to breastfeed. UAE labour law states that new mothers are entitled to two 30-minute breaks to breastfeed each day for the first 18 months but since last year Abu Dhabi Government has offered its female staff two hours of leave a day for one year to breastfeed.

“I feel that women should look forward to breastfeeding and the whole team should be involved in this, so the baby gets a good start,” Dr Gami said. “Support from the husband, the doctor, the nanny, the nurse for the lactating mother is crucial.”

Far-reaching research

The Global Breastfeeding Scorecard evaluated 194 nations and found that only 23 have exclusive breastfeeding rates above 60 per cent.

No country in the world met the recommended standards for breastfeeding, according to the scorecard, which assessed how countries promote and support breastfeeding through funding or policies.

The study found that an annual investment of only US$4.70 per newborn is required to increase the global rate of exclusive breastfeeding among children under six months to 50 per cent by 2025.

Countries are being encouraged to introduce workplace breastfeeding policies, improve access to skilled breastfeeding counselling and strengthen links between health facilities and communities.