Mothers around the world share the common concern of ensuring that their babies are loved and nourished.
In January 2016, Newfoundland and Labrador opened its doors to our first refugees from the Syrian civil war crisis. Upon their arrival to St. John’s, Syrian families faced the unfamiliar – cold and snow – but they were provided warm, safe homes and nutrition, health care and compassion.
There can be many challenges to feeding infants and young children, but few can surpass war. As a public health nurse with Eastern Health, I, along with fellow nurse Barbara Albrechtsons, had the pleasure of meeting a group of Syrian moms this past fall. They graciously shared their experiences about breastfeeding.
Building a new life, after being displaced from your homeland by violence and atrocities, requires unfathomable strength as well as significant resources. Feeding a family comes at a cost. It can also be frustrating for both parents and children when culturally-familiar foods are scarce.
Breastfeeding in Syria
One available food staple for some Syrian mothers was breast milk. Having breast milk meant that their babies had a sustainable, nourishing food supply at all times, regardless of the conditions surrounding them.
Like most Arab countries, Syria had a rich history of breastfeeding. Most women were breastfed themselves and the sisterhood of lactation was strong. As children growing up, they watched their mothers breastfeed, and frequently saw them nurse the babies of other women.
The health benefits of breastfeeding for the baby and the mom were common knowledge. These moms all proclaimed that breastfeeding was both easier to do than preparing bottles and more economical. If a woman could not breastfeed, she was grieved for and supported within the Syrian culture. Breast milk substitutes were considered a last resort.
Unfortunately, not all Syrian mothers struggling to resettle had this advantage to offer their babies. Conflict and instability can undermine breastfeeding, especially when babies are born during emergency situations. Stress, hunger and the separation of families can all add to the challenges mothers experience with breastfeeding. The sad irony is that it is precisely during those difficult times that breastfeeding can be the key to survival for infants and young children.
As Newfoundland and Labrador’s refugee families struggle to integrate into their new homes, breastfeeding their babies can provide them with not only the optimal food choice but also valuable bonding and emotional warmth.
As one glowing Syrian young mom claimed: “For me, breastfeeding my son was a way of planting love inside of him.” For Syrians, cultivating any peaceful experiences can help to soothe the scars of war.
What was remarkable about these mothers was the absolute confidence they possessed about the natural ability of their bodies to nurture their children. While they all confirmed that the early days of breastfeeding could be difficult, they conveyed a common sense of perseverance.
Keeping Breastfeeding Strong
“I was going to make this work,” one mom said of her efforts to breastfeed. “While I was in the refugee camp, I was offered 25 cases of free formula, but I didn’t accept it. My baby needed my milk. I would do anything to make sure that he got it.”
The group agreed: “Mothers deserve to be able to breastfeed. It is the best part – just seeing your baby feed.”
Closer to home, after the introduction of tinned milk and then formula, Newfoundland and Labrador experienced an erosion of its breastfeeding culture. All of the Syrian mothers expressed sadness for Newfoundland and Labrador mothers who want to breastfeed, but who do not get to experience the joys of this valuable chapter in motherhood.
The presence of formula and bottles was a big surprise to Syrian moms. When asked, they described the province as having a ‘bottle-feeding’ culture.
As public health nurses, we worry that now separated from their family networks and trying to assimilate into Canadian society that Syrian mothers, as determined as they are now to breastfeed, may begin to bottle-feed, especially in public.
Breastfeeding is the healthiest way to feed infants. It provides the best nutrition for growth and development, and it has plenty of health benefits for both babies and moms.
We know from research that if women are not supported to continue breastfeeding, premature weaning may occur as mothers venture into educational and employment environments, leaving babies at risk for illness.
Building a Chain of Support
In an effort to ensure support for breastfeeding among our refugee group, Barbara, an Eastern Health public health nurse who works with this population, began to think of ways to encourage young moms to breastfeed.
“These Syrian moms could model breastfeeding and breastfeeding with discretion,” Barbara said. “Breastfeeding can also be particularly challenging for Newfoundland and Labrador women, who, for privacy reasons, discontinue nursing if they feel confined to the isolation of their homes.”
These Syrians moms assured Barbara they are willing to help Syrian pregnant women during their breastfeeding journey – a new sisterhood link in the chain of support.
“By breastfeeding, mothers are instrumental in preserving and promoting optimal infant health,” Barbara said.
What had started as a group of women coming together to support breastfeeding among the new population of Syrian refugees soon became a commitment to ensure that as many mothers as possible – both Syrians and Newfoundlanders and Labradorians – get the opportunity to breastfeed their precious babies, to ‘plant love,’ and as such, to change lives. ■
This story was written by Janet Fox Beer, a public health nurse with Eastern Health.
In Canada, World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated the first week of October. Eastern Health joins organizations across Canada as we draw attention to the importance of breastfeeding.
To learn more about breastfeeding and activities planned during World Breastfeeding Week, please visit www.babyfriendlynl.ca. To learn more about breastfeeding at Eastern Health, including information about regional Breastfeeding Support Groups, please visit: www.easternhealth.ca/breastfeeding.