It’s time to support breastfeeding

Despite all that is known about the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding in the first 6 months of a child’s life, breastfeeding rates around the world are still too low. A resolution being drafted at the World Health Assembly this week would go far in protecting mothers from inappropriate promotion of breastmilk substitutes and other foods marketed as suitable for children younger than 3 years old.

The resolution endorses the World Health Organization (WHO) Guidance on Ending the Inappropriate Promotion of Foods for Infants and Young Children. The guidance helps countries, especially those with high rates of malnutrition among women and children in the critical 1,000 days between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday, make sense of the evidence and provides common sense recommendations on what is appropriate and what is not when marketing complementary foods for infants and children.

{mosads}One would think that such guidance would be welcome. But there is very strong opposition to the resolution, including here in the United States. Industry lobbyists are working hard behind the scenes to make sure that the resolution is blocked. The big question is: Who will stand up for mothers and their children? The U.S. government should support the resolution.

Global breast-milk substitute sales in 2014 were $44.8 billion. They are projected to surpass $70 billion by 2019. The largest growth is in low- and middle-income countries. It is well documented that follow-on formulas and “growing up” milks are marketed in ways that are misleading and confusing to consumers. Promoting these products can even be dangerous when parents unknowingly feed their children milk that is unsuitable for young infants. These products undermine breastfeeding and create the impression that breastmilk substitutes are as good as the real thing. The respected medical journal The Lancet found that mothers are 2.5 times more likely to breastfeed when the practice is protected, promoted, and supported.

The science on breastfeeding is unequivocal. Breastmilk provides infants and young children unparalleled nutrition and immunity from infections. It is why formula manufacturers have continuously tried—but failed—to mimic breastmilk’s nutrient composition.

There is strong evidence showing that children who are breastfed longer are healthier and less likely to die from disease and infections. New research indicates that, as a group, children who are breastfed longer have higher IQs. This is good for both individuals and national economies.

According to The Lancet, 45 percent of preventable child deaths are attributable to malnutrition. Scaling up optimal breastfeeding can prevent an estimated 823,000 child deaths and 20,000 breast cancer deaths every year. The world’s estimated costs of not breastfeeding are estimated at $300 billion a year. This is why in 2012, the World Health Assembly included a target to increase rates of exclusive breastfeeding in a child’s first 6 months to at least 50 percent as one of a series of targets to improve maternal and child nutrition by 2025. Today, in low- and middle-income countries, only 37 percent of infants are exclusively breastfed in the first six months.

The WHO guidance supports national policymaking. It was developed in a rigorous manner, taking into account an extensive body of international nutrition science and research. The guidance simply advises countries to curtail the inappropriate promotion of substitute milk products, not ban them.  

In no way does the guidance discourage the consumption of milk or other dairy products, as alleged by industry lobbyists. In fact, WHO recommends milk consumption for older infants and young children who are not being breastfed. It also does not make any dietary recommendations, rather it clarifies what “breastmilk substitutes” are. It recommends that food for infants and young children should be promoted only if they are in line with a country’s national dietary guidelines.  

The United States has long championed efforts both to end preventable child and maternal deaths and to ensure that babies not only survive but thrive. It is to the interest of the U.S. government and all governments to see that children get off to a strong start in their lives. The costs of not providing this guidance are too high. Too many of the world’s children die needlessly or suffer the long-term consequences of malnutrition.

Lateef is Director of the Bread for the World Institute


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