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During World Breastfeeding Week, WHO Focuses on Infant Formula Marketing

Posted on Aug 05, 2013 by Ailee Slater ()  | Tags: baby formula, breast milk, breastfeeding, infant health, the International Code of Marketing Breast-milk Substitutes, WHO, World Breastfeeding Week, World Health Organization

From August 1st to August 7th every year, the World Health Organization spearheads celebrations of World Breastfeeding Week. During this year's World Breastfeeding Week, going on now, WHO has chosen to put special emphasis one health issue in particular: the marketing of infant formula and other breast milk substitutes.

WHO is concerned about breast milk substitutes, because formulas are, in fact, not a very good substitute for breast milk; certainly not during the first six months of an infant's life. Myriad studies have shown that babes given breast milk - and only breast milk - for the first half year are healthier than babies given formula or a combination of formula and breast milk. In fact, studies have even shown that feeding a young infant exclusively breast milk produces health benefits later in life as well - WHO reports that breast milk-fed infants will have reduced risk of obesity and diabetes as adults, and may even perform better on intelligence tests.

But despite the health benefits of exclusive breastfeeding, many infants are given substitutes alongside or in place of breast milk. WHO researchers estimate that around the world, only 39 percent of infants are exclusively breastfed during the first six months. So, why are so many new parents relying on infant formulas?

To begin, babies fed on breast milk need to eat more often than babies fed on formula. For working women, or women who have other personal or familial responsibilities, such a demanding timetable may be impossible to arrange. Also, breastfeeding can be uncomfortable, and some women may prefer to forgo nursing due to soreness or painful breast tissue. Of course, a lack of information can also influence a mother to forgo breast feeding - without the proper education and support, she may feel that she is nursing the baby incorrectly, or that the baby is not getting enough nutrition from her milk alone, and therefore will choose to use a baby formula instead.

However, there is one more reason that women may be choosing infant formula over breast milk - advertising campaigns from formula manufacturers. And this year, during World Breastfeeding Week, WHO hopes to draw attention to these marketing practices which may be influencing women's decision to not exclusively breastfeed.

A report published last month by WHO, in anticipation of World Breastfeeding Week, pointed out that a mere 19 percent of the nearly 200 countries surveyed were following the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. The Code, created in 1981,  includes a number of criteria that countries are encouraged to follow with regards to advertising breast milk substitutes; for example:

  • The advertising of breast milk substitutes should be prohibited

  • Free samples of substitutes should never be distributed

  • Gifts from infant formula companies to health care workers should be disallowed

  • Breast milk substitute products should carry a packaging label informing consumers about the superior benefits of breast milk

  • A national monitoring system should be in place to assure that these and other rules are being followed

 The WHO International Code of Marketing Breast-milk Substitutes came about in response to infant formula marketing concerns which arose in the 1970s. Nowadays, WHO is putting special emphasis on encouraging developing countries to follow the Code more strictly. Women in these nations will sometimes by given product samples and "educational pamphlets" by formula manufacturers; designed to sway women away from exclusive breast feeding.

Indeed, exclusive breastfeeding may be even more essential in developing countries that can't give new mothers consistent access to clean water. If powdered infant formula is mixed with unclean drinking water, there is a good chance that the infant will become ill. Breast milk, on the other hand, will always be clean and sterile (as well as nutritious and full of antibodies), and is therefore a much better choice for mothers in developing nations. WHO also points out that very poor and lower-income families using formula may be tempted to save money by diluting the formula to make it last longer; the result of which will be malnutrition for the infant.

Another reason that WHO wants to prohibit all formula marketing, and samples especially, is because breastfeeding is most beneficial when it is done exclusively - combining breast milk and formula will not reap the same benefits as breast milk by itself. In a developing nation, giving an infant formula in any form may risk exposure to unclean water, but perhaps more importantly, if a mother takes a break from breastfeeding and gives her baby formula instead, her breasts will stop producing milk much sooner than if the infant were exclusively and continuously nursing.

Interestingly, breastfeeding even has benefits for new mothers. Besides the documented psychological effects of bonding mother and infant, breastfeeding may reduce risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and has been shown to help a woman return to her pre-pregnancy weight more easily. Breastfeeding also acts a birth control measure - exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of the infant's life will prevent a woman's body from producing a hormone necessary to induce ovulation. Without that hormone, the new mother has no chance of getting pregnant; a breastfeeding side effect that can be extremely helpful to women who don't have access to birth control and wouldn't be able to healthily handle another pregnancy so soon after giving birth.

WHO recommends that, along with following the International Code of Marketing Breast-milk Substitutes, more women should be given immediate training in how to breastfeed. At the moment, WHO is developing courses to train health care workers in how to prepare mothers for this task and offer the necessary support. Hospitals worldwide are also encouraged to have designated baby facilities where new mothers can receive help from medical workers in learning how to nurse comfortably. WHO estimates that if every baby in the world were breastfed, 220,000 lives would be saved every year; and indeed, WHO studies in Ghana, India and Peru recently showed that infants not breastfed had a 10 percent higher likelihood of experiencing sickness and death - and those are the sorts of statistics that might make many new parents think twice about choosing formula, no matter how it's marketed.

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