"Breast milk contains exactly the nutrients that the
infant needs, helping the infant's development, with breastfed children
performing better on intelligence tests than formula-fed children," Randa
Jarudi Saadeh, a scientist at the Nutrition for Health and Development
Department of the World Health Organisation, told IPS.
"Furthermore, breastfeeding helps mother and infant
bond," she said.
Human milk is the ideal nourishment for infants' survival,
growth and development. According to medical studies, exclusive breastfeeding
for the first six months of life stimulates babies' immune systems and protects
them from life-threatening diseases such as diarrhea and acute respiratory
infections -- two of the main causes of infant mortality in developing
"Exclusive breastfeeding means giving the baby nothing
other than breast milk -- not even water -- for the first six months of
life," David Clark, a project officer at the nutrition section of the U.N.
children's agency UNICEF, told IPS.
"Newborns are extremely vulnerable as their immune
systems are not yet functioning," he said. "Breast milk protects the
baby by providing him or her with the mothers' antibodies. The bottom line is
that exclusive breastfeeding saves lives."
But according to UNICEF's State of the World's Children
report last year, exclusive breastfeeding rates are still very low, just 37
percent worldwide, with more than 60 percent of mothers not exclusively
breastfeeding during the crucial six first six months.
Some studies have shown that brochures and free samples
distributed by infant formula companies are linked to a significant decrease in
the number of women who breast-fed their babies in the first two weeks of life.
The marketing campaigns also shortened the breastfeeding duration of women who
did not plan to breastfeed for more than 12 weeks.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that there are
still nearly 11 million children who die every year from preventable causes. If
every baby were exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life, an
estimated 1.3 million additional lives would be saved every year, while
complementary feeding could prevent another 578,000 deaths.
One problem is that most formula comes in powdered form and
must be mixed with water before it is ready. But many mothers in developing
countries lack access to clean water, and the formula can end up with bacteria
and other contaminants.
Overall, the rates of exclusive breastfeeding have
improved, although large variations exist across regions. The highest rates are
currently found in the East Asia/Pacific region (43 percent), while the lowest
are found in West and
Clark notes that in countries where health and community
workers were trained to give mothers counseling and support, breastfeeding rates
"doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled".
But despite the high cost of breast milk substitutes, and
the fact that they lack natural antibodies to disease, many mothers still use to
them as a way to feed their children.
"Common difficulties which hinder breastfeeding are
unsupportive environments such as workplaces with inadequate working conditions,
or public places where mothers are not allowed to breastfeed," Dr. Richard
Alderslade of the WHO told IPS.
"Cultural and social factors also play a role in
influencing infant feeding decisions. Improper marketing and promotion of food
products that compete with breastfeeding are important factors that often
negatively affect the choice and ability of a mother to breastfeed her infant
In fact, there has been a boycott of the Swiss food giant
Nestle going on since 1977, with activists charging that the company uses
unethical tactics to promote its infant formula, especially in developing
countries. Hundreds of European universities, colleges and schools have since
banned the sale of Nestl products from their shops and vending machines.
Of course, breastfeeding is not always possible, and
problems can arise with the mother or infant, or both. One major issue is the
situation of HIV-positive mothers, when the danger of nursing must be weighed
against the consequences of not breastfeeding.
Studies have shown that babies who are breastfed by
HIV-positive mothers have a 10 to 20 percent chance of becoming infected, and
the longer a child is breastfed, the higher the risk of contracting the virus.
Although some precautions can be taken, such as replacement
feeding, home-prepared modified animal milk, heat-treated expressed breast milk,
breast milk banks or wet nursing, it remains a frightening dilemma both for
mothers and for organisations that promote breastfeeding.
"Guidance is also available for HIV-positive women who
choose not to breastfeed on adequate and safe alternatives," Alderslade
explained. "The guidelines, training materials and job-aids on HIV and
infant feeding provide detailed instructions on how to prepare, administer and
safely store breast-milk substitutes, including commercially prepared infant
formula as well as home modified animal milks."
Clark said that, "In the short term, we would like to
see a continued increase in the number of baby-friendly hospitals and of
countries with effective legislation to implement the International Code of
Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and the 2000 Maternity Protection
"We would also like to see greater awareness of the
risks of artificial feeding. In the long term, we would like to see a world in
which mothers, families and other caregivers can make fully informed decisions
about optimal infant feeding and receive the support they need to carry them
out," Clarke added.
World Breastfeeding Week 2006, which ended on Aug. 7, also
marks the 25th anniversary of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk
Substitutes, which prohibits advertising and aggressive marketing of formulas,
bottles and nipples.
"The fact that there has been an improvement means
that the strategies we have been using are working,"
said. "However, much more needs to be done. Just over 60 countries around
the world have adopted the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk
Substitutes into enforceable national regulations. Clearly more countries need
to follow this example."
Breastfeeding and good nutrition for children are also
critical for achievement of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, particularly
the goals relating to child survival, such as reducing child mortality by 50
percent by 2015 and eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. (END/2006)