Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Milky Way

When I was a baby born in 1980, my mom fed me baby formula. My mother did not do this because she had any problem with breastfeeding, but because thirty years ago doctors were advising mothers to feed their babies formula. In fact, at the time, doctors claimed that baby formula was better for babies than breast milk. Infant formula was a sign of progress and it made it much easier for new moms to feed their babies.

Nowadays, it is widely known that breast milk is the best food to feed your newborn or infant .  Research shows that breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival. Every year, approximately one million children die from conditions that could have been prevented if they had been breastfed.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, at which point, other foods should be added to the baby’s diet: “Breast milk is the ideal food for newborns and infants. It gives infants all the nutrients they need for healthy development. It is safe and contains antibodies that help protect infants from common childhood illnesses – such as diarrhoea and pneumonia, the two primary causes of child mortality worldwide.”  In addition to these benefits, breastfeeding contributes to a lifetime of good health. Adults who were breastfed as babies tend to have lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol. They are also less likely to be obese or overweight, or to develop type-2 diabetes.

Babies are not the only ones who benefit from breastfeeding. Mothers also reap the benefits of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding reduces risks of breast and ovarian cancer later in life, helps women return to their pre-pregnancy weight faster, and lowers rates of obesity among women.

In my opinion, the ultimate benefit of breastfeeding is the strong bond between the mother and child that results from it. If you talk to any mom who breastfed her baby, she will tell you that breastfeeding brought her and her baby closer together.

With all these benefits, why would any woman who is able to breastfeed choose not to breastfeed her babies?  Like it happened to my mother when I was born, some women still fall victim to the misleading advertisement of formula-producing companies, or they follow poor advice from people, including those in the medical professions.

To make matters worse, some hospitals still hand out free samples of infant formula to new mothers. In the United States, a report on breastfeeding showed that less than five 5 percent of infants are born in hospitals that fully support breastfeeding, and that 1 in 4 infants receive formula within hours of birth. This is further worsened by the fact that these hospitals include infant formula packages and formula coupons in the “goody bags” they give new moms. It is not outrageous to think that if a doctor is giving you something, it must be good for you. Unfortunately, in this case, mothers need to think twice about it.

The debate regarding infant formula versus breast milk is so contentious that it led to a huge controversy involving one of the large producers of formula: Nestle. The Nestle Boycott, as it became known, took place during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and was triggered as a result of the health consequences resulting from infant breast milk substitutes. Those health effects occurred particularly in developing countries and among the poor. This boycott was more successful among developed nations, where Nestle’s advertisement efforts and operations were monitored.

Unfortunately, even though the benefits of breast milk over formula have been shown, and despite the   boycott, formula-producing companies still shifted their marketing efforts to developing nations, completely disregarding the health recommendations made by experts over the past decade. In some ways, their marketing strategy reminds me of what tobacco companies did when the health hazards of smoking became widely known in developed countries. Since smoking became stigmatized in countries like the United States, tobacco companies started advertising heavily in developing nations, taking advantage of the less harsh regulations on smoking.  Like tobacco companies, formula-producing companies seem to have taken advantage of the lack of regulation and information regarding this issue in certain areas of the world.

The harms of feeding infant formula to your baby are not limited to missing the benefits of breast milk. Surely, infant formula does not contain the antibodies found in breast milk, and it does not lead to a connection between mother and child while feeding, but there are other risks associated with infant formula.

In developing countries, a big risk is water-borne diseases that arise from mixing powdered formula with unsafe water. The reality is that, in many countries, people lack access to clean water sources. Infant formula therefore becomes a health hazard for them. Moreover, new mothers might not know with how to mix the formula correctly. In some cases, malnutrition can result from over-diluting formula in order to stretch supplies. In order to maintain breast milk supplies, mothers need to engage in frequent feedings. Unfortunately, if formula use becomes unavailable, it might not be possible for a mother to return to breastfeeding due to diminished breast milk production.

In the case of developing countries, where resources are limited, breast milk, which is free, is indeed the best alternative to mothers.

Making breastfeeding the norm continues to be a challenge around the world. In countries like the United States mothers face criticism over breastfeeding in public. In some instances, nursing mothers have been asked to go to the bathroom to breastfeed. The question here is would you eat a meal in a public restroom? I do not think so. Then, why would you ask a mother to feed her baby in the bathroom?

In contrast, in developing countries, which are currently the biggest target markets for instant-formula companies, breastfeeding in public is widely accepted and encouraged.

Regardless of how one feels about a woman nursing her baby in public, we should all agree that breastfeeding is the best option for ensuring babies get proper nutrition. Information about the benefits of breast milk needs to be widely spread in order for all mothers and their babies to benefit. Currently, instant-formula companies like Nestle and Danone are making their way into the nutrition sector of countries with large population growth, like India.  With 25 million children born each year, India is the fastest growing infant nutrition market in the world, and these companies are planning on taking full advantage of this growth.

If we do not take the time to educate new mothers about the best options when it comes to baby nutrition, those with special interests are going to profit from the lack of knowledge of mothers. The best alternative does not always costs money. In the case of breast milk, nature gave us the best food we can feed our babies in order to make sure they develop into healthy children and, later, into healthy adults. Breast milk is nature’s gift to us. Let’s make sure we take advantage of it!

World Health Organization:
USA Today:

Wikipedia – Nestle Boycott:é_boycott#Current_status_of_the_boycott
Natural Resources Defense Council:

By Paola Brigneti