The UAE Cabinet has implemented a blanket ban on the advertising of infant formula and other infant nutrition products, including follow-up formula and complementary foods.
The marketing and advertising of other formula-related products,such as feeding bottles and teats, have also been banned.
This regulatory update is based on a law that was passed in April last year, whereby a resolution to regulate the marketing of breastmilk substitutes was adopted.
The purpose of the law was to promote exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of life, while ensuring that children who needed formula consumed only safe and natural breastmilk substitutes.
Manufacturers were also required to provide approved identification cards containing relevant information on optimal consumption.
The law was implemented in accordance with the International Marketing Code of Breastfeeding, as well as WHO and UNICEF recommendations that babies be breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life, after which complementary foods can be introduced as a supplement to breastfeeding until children are two years of age or older.
These recommendations are in turn based on the idea that breastmilk is superior to other forms of nutrition when it comes to healthy growth and development and disease prevention in infants and young children.
Dr Esmat Mohd Al Qassim, head of the primary healthcare department’s mother and child health section (under the Ministry of Health and Prevention), said the main function of the new law was to help protect, promote and support breastfeeding by regulating the marketing and advertising of nutrition products for infants and young children (birth to two years old).
The promotion of such products, she added, had to be prohibited as it would affect breastfeeding and “undermine mothers’ confidence”.
In addition to the advertising ban, the UAE government also aims to promote breastfeeding by encouraging hospitals, clinics, and healthcare centres to be ‘baby-friendly’, in line with UNICEF and WHO guidelines.
This includes healthcare professionals attending the WHO-UNICEF’s 20-hour breastfeeding promotion course and 90-hour lactation course, as well as familiarising themselves with official breastfeeding assessment guidelines.
Furthermore, the UAE’s annual International Breastfeeding Week (August 1 to 7) and National Breastfeeding Week (November 8 to 14) seeks to further raise awareness and educate mothers.
Wider support network
Apart from the aforementioned branches of government promotion of breastfeeding in the UAE, a wider network has also been established to ensure mothers receive adequate support when it comes to infant nutrition.
The Breastfeeding Friends (BFF) Society in Sharjah is one such voluntary organisation.
Breastfeeding counsellor and supervisor Badriyyah Riad told local media that the added nutrients in certain formula products were “not research-based” , and that “false advertising” was involved.
She also raised concerns about doctors recommending formula to parents as a first choice for their children, adding that company representatives should not be allowed to offer samples and gifts to parents or doctors.
BFF reports any observation of suspicious activity in this regard to the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), and emphasises the importance of enforcement to keep International Code violations at bay.
However, it also recognises that mothers need sufficient support in order to minimise their chances of choosing formula over breastfeeding. Riad said that for mothers who claim to lack adequate milk to breastfeed, BFF teaches them that it is “a matter of simple adjustments” .
BFF also provides a 40-hour training course for peer counsellors on common problems faced by mothers, and prepares mothers for their post-natal return to work by educating them on their maternity leave entitlements, and how to incorporate breastfeeding into their lifestyle.
At the same time, the organisation’s volunteers visit new mothers in the hospital during the Breastfeeding Weeks, offer hotline support 10 hours a day in three languages — Arabic, English and Urdu — and are all enrolled in peer counsellor training to learn how best to manage mothers’ concerns.
Salma Haroun — who has been volunteering with BFF since 2005 — said, “We also educate our volunteers on how to recognise when a formula company has violated any law on marketing and advertising their products.”
Formulating solutions for the individual
She added that despite the strict regulations on formula advertising, BFF acknowledged the necessity of formula in certain situations.
“We do understand there are situations where mothers need some kind of supplementation (to feed their children), but the laws are important so that mothers who have no problem breastfeeding are not offered formula.
“When we meet mothers who have medical or hormonal issues that prevent them from breastfeeding properly, we do our best to assist them in providing for their babies using mixed feeding. But before that, we offer help in stimulating breastmilk production, and encourage mothers to visit our lactation clinic in Sharjah.”
Outside of Sharjah and throughout the UAE, BFF boasts an extensive network of volunteers who are able to refer mothers to suitable healthcare professionals in their respective areas of residence.
“We respect every mother’s decision, but before she makes the final conclusion on how best to feed her child, we want to be sure we have given her all the information and help she needs.
“Infant nutrition products from any company that does not engage in Code violations should be safe to consume, but again, we would not recommend this approach to all mothers — we prefer to assess them individually and make such recommendations on a case-by-case basis.”