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As I Nurse My Baby, I Mourn for All the Mothers in Gaza Whose Milk Is Drying Up

I am spending this day grieving for mothers in Gaza who, dehydrated and under attack, are unable to feed their children.

A Palestinian mother feeds her child near a makeshift tent as the Palestinian families seek refuge at the El-Mavasi district as they struggle to find clean water, food and medicine as the Israeli attacks continue in Rafah, Gaza, on February 9, 2024.

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My daughter and I recently reached 21 months of breastfeeding. When we started this journey, I would never have believed we would make it this far, knowing that breastfeeding may not be possible to start or sustain due to myriad reasons. As I reflected on this milestone, I was heartbroken to read about Sabreen, a baby girl who was prematurely delivered from her dead mother’s womb after her entire family was killed by an Israeli airstrike. She never had the chance to breastfeed with her mother. Days later, baby Sabreen died and was buried next to her mother. Basic human rights have been violently stripped away from all people in Gaza, including an estimated 50,000 who are currently pregnant, roughly 180 who are giving birth each day in abysmal conditions, and all the currently nursing Palestinian mothers and their babies.

Here in the United States, multitudes of people like me are approaching our pregnancies with a kind of reverence and care, trying to be intentional and mindful about all the conditions surrounding our pregnancy journeys and births. After much education and deliberation, I decided to plan a home birth with support from my husband, doula, midwife and an OB-GYN friend who was available at a hospital nearby for emergency care if I needed it. It was liberating to choose the environment I felt most positive about giving birth in.

Today, in Gaza, parents have no such choice. Nearly 2 million Palestinians in Gaza have been forcibly displaced from their homes since October 7. According to the United Nations, there is an estimated $18.5 billion in damage to critical infrastructure there, including damage to at least 62 percent of all homes. Due to military attacks on hospitals, limited humanitarian access and blockades on vital medical supplies, there are no more fully functioning hospitals in Gaza. During these attacks, even maternity wards in Gaza’s medical centers have been shelled by the Israeli military. Pregnant women in Gaza no longer have homes to deliver their babies in, as they continue to be forced to flee multiple times. In Rafah, tens of thousands of pregnant women’s lives are at risk as they face continuous bombing across the city, the looming threat of a ground invasion and nowhere safe to go. Elsewhere, with less than a third of all hospitals partially functioning and no safe routes to get to medical centers, many pregnant Palestinians in Gaza are forced to give birth in overcrowded shelters, on the floors of hospitals, in tents and in public restrooms.

My daughter arrived 10 days early. I started to labor at home around 9 pm, my water broke at 2 am and our baby girl entered this world at 6:13 am in a tub in the middle of our living room during a planned water birth. Immediately after she was born, my birthing team helped me get back to my bedroom, cleaned me up, weighed and screened our baby, and left our family alone for the sacred “golden hour.” The golden hour is the time immediately after birth when mother and baby’s skin-to-skin contact can promote attachment, reduce each other’s stress, and increase rates and duration of breastfeeding.

But mothers and newborns in Gaza don’t get a peaceful golden hour. Instead, they are faced with the reality that, on average, two mothers are killed every hour, and one child is killed every 10 minutes in the bombarded enclave. The joy and celebration of carrying and bringing new life into this world is replaced with trauma, grief and fear as some newborns in Gaza have been issued their death certificate before their births were even registered.

Palestinians in Gaza are facing genocide via indiscriminate bombing and forced starvation. Food, water, medicine and safe shelter are extremely scarce. With limited to no access to clean drinking water, mothers cannot rely on formula even if it is available. As a result, breast milk is the safest way to feed newborn babies in Gaza. But due to the catastrophic conditions in Gaza, those giving birth who might otherwise nurse their newborns for nutrition are being starved, dehydrated and put under unthinkable levels of stress, causing the natural milk production in their bodies to shut down due to the physical and psychological trauma they are facing.

According to an article posted by Shivani Patel on the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center website, “Stress is the No. 1 killer of breastmilk supply, especially in the first few weeks after delivery. Between lack of sleep and adjusting to the baby’s schedule, rising levels of certain hormones such as cortisol can dramatically reduce your milk supply.”

Parents who are trying to breastfeed (or chestfeed) should consume between 2,000 to 2,800 calories daily to keep up their milk supply, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But since October 9, Israel has enforced a full blockade on Gaza and cut off all sources of water, electricity, food and fuel. Due to Israel’s active blockade of humanitarian aid into Gaza, people in northern Gaza have been forced to survive on an average of 245 calories a day, according to Oxfam.

Some newborns in Gaza have been issued their death certificate before their births were even registered.

Moreover, breastfeeding parents should consume 128 ounces of water daily to compensate for the extra water needed to produce milk, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Due to Israel’s siege on Gaza’s water, the United Nations estimates that the average Palestinian in Gaza is living on only three liters of water per day for all needs — drinking, cooking and bathing. Furthermore, as a result of the lack of fuel, Gaza’s water production has been at 5 percent of its normal levels since the start of Israel’s blockade, causing life-threatening dehydration and preventable diseases to spread in Gaza.

Breast milk can provide invaluable nutrients for a newborn’s brain growth and nervous system development as well as protect them against short- and long-term illnesses and diseases. The ability to offer all of this to their babies is being taken away from many mothers in Gaza. Israel’s endless bombardment and blockade on Palestinian civilians, despite the international community’s condemnation and warnings, is preventing lactating Palestinians in Gaza from feeding their children with the very last resource they have to offer: their own bodies.

As a new mother, I feel an instinctual urgency to protect Palestinian babies, their mothers and their community. We need an immediate and permanent ceasefire now. We need safe and unrestricted humanitarian access to Gaza and support for organizations such as Palestinian American Medical Association and Baitulmaal. We need an end to Israel’s apartheid and occupation. All people in Gaza deserve to live and thrive in a safe, nourishing and free Palestine.

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