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Forcing Mothers to Breastfeed Is No Way to Help Children

20/02/2014 18:03 GMT | Updated 22/04/2014 10:59 BST

By Victoria Metcalf, Lincoln University, New Zealand

Breastfeeding has again been frothing up debate after the United Arab Emirates (UAE) introduced a clause to its Child Rights law that makes it mandatory to breastfeed children for the first two years of a their life. Ahmed Al Shamsi, a member of the country's Federal National Council, said the practice was now "a duty and not an option".

Breastfeeding is the norm for mother and child as recognised by UNICEF and the WHO, and supported by numerous scientific studies.

Using the law to increase breastfeeding rates, however, is unlikely to succeed if at the same time it erodes a mother's rights. And approaches to improve breastfeeding rates that do little to educate and empower mothers are counterproductive.

During a debate on the clause, Salem Al Ameri, a council member for Abu Dhabi, said that Islam supported breastfeeding as a right for all children. But not all within the council supported the clause. Mariam Al Roumi, UAE's minister for social affairs, said such a law could lead to husbands suing their wives if they did not breastfeed. "This part of the law can be a burden," she said. "If the law forced women to breastfeed, this could lead to new court cases."

Punishing non-breastfeeders

By maintaining that breastfeeding is a right for all children, the clause aims to foster strong mother-child relationships. This idea (and suggested duration) is taken from the Qur'an. But the Qur'an itself doesn't stipulate mandatory breastfeeding.

More weight should be given to a child's right to access breast milk (rather than breastfeeding per se), especially as they have no voice. But ultimately it is a mother's right to choose how she feeds her baby. It's a balance between mother and child but choice does need to reside with the mother. Messing with that undermines relationships.

Not all mothers can breastfeed, this can be due to physical problems such as breast tissue not developing properly or chronic health conditions like diabetes, and certainly not all can breastfeed for a full two years. Donor milk can be a viable alternative, and the new UAE clause includes paid provision of wet nurses for those unable to feed. It's a preferred option over formula, and as it's paid for by the state, cheaper too. But it may be a less empowering option than a mother obtaining donor milk and feeding her child herself.

As raised by Al Roumi, the legislation allows for husbands to sue wives if they don't breastfeed throughout the first two years of their child's life. How enforcement would work is unclear but punitive outcomes (fines or even jail) from the state could be used if husbands were to report or take action against their wives for not adhering to the new law. Technically, a mother whose milk supply dwindles and is unable to meet their two year quota may be prosecuted.

Using negative consequences to threaten mothers may actually lower breastfeeding rates and morale as women experiencing issues will feel pressure that may adversely rather than positively impact breastfeeding. Parents may also hide what they are doing or not doing for fear of punishment, rather than seeking out support if there's a problem. How women are judged to be in genuine need of a wet nurse criteria and any stigma that comes with that remains to be seen.

Women's and mothers' rights

In the UAE, a woman and her breasts belong to her husband. The law now makes her breasts the property of the child for the first two years of its life.

The rights of the child to have a chance at the best life possible are acknowledged but not the rights of mothers. Unsurprisingly, there has been criticism from some UAE mothers.

Mandatory breastfeeding is unlikely to become standard in other countries, but incentives like being paid to breastfeed, being trialed in the UK, also send out potentially dangerous signals. The claim that paying mothers will raise the perceived value of breastfeeding can be countered because it also disempowers women in much the same way as the UAE scheme: both possess a level of handing over control of your body to others.

Knowledge not legislation

Both carrot and stick-based approaches treat symptoms (low breastfeeding rates) and not the cause (why are breastfeeding rates so low?). Developing education programmes and reaching out to women and empowering them is the way to do it instead, taking a community approach to improve breastfeeding rates, not a law-based one.

Alongside these, other measures that could help include breastfeeding rooms in workplaces, better access to childcare, investing in milk banks and providing incentives for breast milk donation, and even, as has been suggested elsewhere, taxing formula. Ultimately, the answer lies in knowledge, consideration of the mother and child, rather than excessive legislation.

Victoria Metcalf does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.