Reproductive Justice
Breastfeeding During War

Breastfeeding During War

J. Nalubega Ross

The fireworks began at 7 pm, and my anxiety, already made worse by sleep deprivation, was heightened. I had just returned home with my newborn from a traumatic birth experience, and we were struggling to learn to breastfeed and find a sleeping pattern. That evening, after a lot of fuss, I had finally put her to sleep. I was looking forward to the two-hour nap I was going to try and get in, before my baby woke. A nap that would hopefully relax me enough to let my milk come down. Then the fireworks began. I lay in bed, my baby in a crib next to me, hoping the noise wouldn’t wake her. I prayed to whatever deity would listen that none of my neighbors would let off any fireworks too close to our house. I wanted my baby to sleep, but I knew then sleep was no longer an option for me. I fervently hoped that I would at least be rested enough to produce enough milk for the next time my baby woke up. Breastfeeding her was both about feeding and bonding with my new child.

Whether done during times of peace or war, breastfeeding is hard. According to the World Health Organization, breastfeeding should begin within an hour of birth and should continue for at least the first six months of a child’s life. So mothers have to figure out their newborn’s hunger cues, how to correctly hold their infant, if they have enough milk, and how to produce enough milk for the next six months. Mothers also have to worry about sore or cracked nipples, engorged breasts, and blocked milk ducts, and have to make sure they eat enough to keep up their milk supply. All this and the myriad other things that are necessary to keep a newborn infant alive. Needless to say, breastfeeding is a time consuming and very involved process.

Breastfeeding provides more than just food to newborns; it also helps with the bonding process between mother and newborn. Breastfeeding a newborn provides them with antibodies to fight off disease and to grow. To stimulate milk production, a mother is encouraged to relax and hold her newborn close to her skin. This bonding experience lets the mother’s body know what it needs to do to nourish the newborn. To keep up the milk supply, mothers are also encouraged to feed their babies every two hours in the first few days and eight to twelve times a day for the next few months. However, doing all of this is no guarantee that a mother will have a good milk supply because stress or anxiety can cause a that supply to decrease.

Not having enough food, not having a stable home, and fearing for your life and that of your loved ones are all stressful situations that greatly increase during war time. Examining breastfeeding in other countries at war, such as Afghanistan or Syria, reveals how an already hard situation is made that much more difficult. Wars lead not only to the breakdown of physical structures but also to the breakdown of individuals’ lives. Mothers who once had access to health care centers where they could get help with proper latching find themselves without those health care centers. And even if they never had access to a health center, protracted wars lead to splintering in family units, meaning that those who could help a new mother with breastfeeding might be gone.

As of January 2020, Syria is now entering its ninth year of war, and Afghanistan is in its nineteenth year of war. During all this time, children have been born and their mothers have had to breastfeed them. And the attacks on daily life in both Afghanistan and Syria have been relentless. On May 12, 2020, a group of gunmen attacked a maternity hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan. Going from room to room, these gunmen killed a total of twenty-four people. For newborns who lost their mothers in the attack, they lost the chance to touch their mothers’ skin and breastfeed. For the mothers who survived this brutal attack, though they can hold their newborns, they will not be able to breastfeed them. As one mother, Najiba, who survived the attack stated, the shock has caused her breastmilk to dry up.

As the night wore on, I lay in my bed willing myself to sleep. I don’t know how long I had been awake, but just as I was beginning to fall asleep, I heard a loud bang outside our bedroom window. Startled, I jerked up right in my bed and looked at my baby who continued to sleep peacefully in the cot next to me. My partner would later inform me that the loud bang I had heard the night before was a type of a firework known as a “Cherry Bomb.”

In another example a year earlier, in May 2019, a hospital in Syria was barrel bombed four times in one day, each attack spaced five minutes apart. At one point during the attack, nurses and patients had to use oxygen to breathe through the choking dust. Given the continuous bombing that this hospital faced, there are questions about which illnesses the newborns and their parents were exposed to and whether breast milk has enough antibodies to protect these newborns. Women and their children have long been casualties of war, despite the United Nations’s continued request to protect women and children during war.

My experience was one night. And it was fireworks. I knew that the next day, this would all pass and I could return to my regular day figuring out how to breastfeed and take care of my daughter. All the buildings in my neighborhood would still be standing the next morning. There was no need for me to pack a bag for my newborn and myself to flee to a safe place. I did not have to worry about where my next meal or drink of water would come from. I could take the time and space to figure out breastfeeding because I was not living in an active war zone. Breastfeeding and war do not go together, and if we want to raise healthy children in an equitable world, it is time we end all war.

Featured image caption: A 2-day old infant latches onto their mother’s breast. (Courtesy ibu menyusui/Flickr)

J. Nalubega Ross is a Ugandan American living in the dry dry desert of Arizona. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree at Arizona State University. Their graduate work is concerned with how people from Africa living in the United States look for information about sex and reproduction. And once they find that information how do they use it make decisions about having or not having sex and whether or not to reproduce. When not reading books for graduate work and avoiding writing, Nalubega spends time watching and commenting on cartoons with her toddler and ranting to her partner about sex and reproduction in the United States.