By Um Yaqoob
Issue 106, May/June 2001
It was 9 p.m. when the nurse wheeled me to my bed, one of six in the Omani hospital ward. After a full day of labor, I thought I would finally settle down with my sleeping newborn and get some rest.
The first few cries from the baby in the adjoining bed didn't bother me. The mother responded quickly, and I was able to doze off. When he howled for the second, third, fourth, fifth, and then I-don't-know-what-number time, the mother let out an audible "tsk" before she went to pick him up. Her nerves were beginning to fray. By 3 a.m., so were mine and those of the other four women on the ward. The later it got, the longer it took the woman to pick up her son. The nurse came to talk to her. "He wants to nurse," she said.
"I keep feeding him. There is no milk." The woman raised her voice, a heavy accent coloring her English. She was near to tears.
"There doesn't need to be any milk. He just needs you."
"I'm tired! I can't keep getting up to nurse him! Please, can you give him a bottle?"
"No." The answer was very firm. "Breastfeeding is not just about milk, Mother. Your breast is all that baby knows. He needs the colostrum that is there now. Even if you don't feel it, it's there."
The mother moaned and fell back onto the bed. "I can't stand any more of this."
I felt sorry for her. I felt sorry for all of us. Her baby was keeping all the mothers, and our newborns, from getting our rest. Yet I imagined her nipples were sore by then, and her fatigue was aggravating her impatience with her baby's need to suck.
The doctor came. "What's wrong, Mother? Your baby won't nurse?"
"He nurses! That's the problem! That's all he wants to do. He won't sleep because he's not getting any milk. Please, doctor, tell the nurse I need to give him a bottle."
The doctor shook his head. "I cannot do that. Your baby is sick. He has a fever. That is why he won't sleep. He needs what is coming from your breast now. It is the only medicine we have for him."
She started to cry.
"You are a mother of five now. You know all of this. Please. You must feed your baby." He picked up the whimpering baby and gave him to his mother. "Feed your baby, Mother."
Finally, after several more wakings, the baby became quiet. He was quiet for so long, in fact, that I could not sleep in the sudden silence. Looking over to see what had calmed him, I saw that the woman had fallen asleep with the baby at her breast. Her arm was around him. If he awoke, what he needed was right in front of him.
Morning came just two hours later. Before the nurses had even come to change the beds, the occupants of bed number one had a visitor. A tall woman stood sternly over the mother and sick baby. The woman began to speak in excited Arabic.
"What is this the nurse is telling me? You were asking for a bottle for the baby?"
"He couldn't sleep. He was hungry."
The visitor shook her head. "Yes, he was hungry--hungry for his mother! Do you want to stay here for a month with a sick baby? Your other children are crying for you, and you are just lying here in the bed!"
"I cannot feed him anymore! I'm tired."
"Give him to me, then. I have milk. I'll nurse him." The tall woman lifted the baby from his bassinet and sat down.
By now all of the other mothers, including me, were sitting up to watch the scene. The tall woman had the baby in position, ready to latch on, when the mother said, "Give him to me."
"Why? You said he needs milk. Here is milk." She drew the baby close again.
The mother reached for her child. "I'll feed him."
Slowly, her eyes set straight on the mother, the woman handed the baby over. "Feed him, then. No more talk about bottles. No nephew of mine will have a bottle before he has even left the hospital!" After a few minutes, satisfied the new mother would indeed devote herself to breastfeeding, the visitor left.
The mother scarcely put the baby down the rest of the day. He sucked at her breast even as she sat dozing in her chair, even as she ate her food. Except for an occasional fuss from the other babies, the ward was quiet.
Evening came, and with it arrived the doctor. "Well, Mother, I see your medicine worked. The fever is down, and if it stays down you can go home tomorrow."
Relief flooded the woman's face. "Alhamdu lillah [thanks be to God]!" she proclaimed. After the doctor left, I heard the woman sniffling. She was crying, kissing the baby, saying "Alhamdu lillah" over and over.