Still going strong…

We know you were all aware that we observed World Breastfeeding Week a few weeks ago and participated in a host of activities to highlight the importance of breastfeeding. We are looking forward to hearing the results of your efforts.

We have known the benefits of exclusive and prolonged breastfeeding for quite a while: it has the single largest potential impact on child survival of any preventive intervention. It serves as a child’s first immunization and provides protection from respiratory infections, diarrheal disease, and other illnesses. It protects against obesity and some non-communicable diseases later in life. According to the Lancet’s analysis of more than 1,300 studies, breastfeeding could prevent about 800,000 child deaths a year. We all know there is much to do – still – to make exclusive breastfeeding the norm during the first six months of life.

But here’s the thing. We, in the public health and nutrition arena, are working against some pretty big players. We do our best to promote breastfeeding, hand-in-hand with governments and civil society, but it turns out there’s not much profit in breastfeeding promotion. Marketing to increase sales of infant formula and now “follow-on” milks is a big, and growing, business. Because of this, Save the Children continues to advocate to countries to adopt and enforce the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent WHA resolutions.

It didn’t start out this way. A recent article from the BBC recalls the history of infant formula and its invention by a German man named Justus von Liebig. Liebig was a boy during the massive crop failure in Europe in 1816. His exposure to the famine that followed drove his desire to become a chemist and to help prevent hunger. In the words of the BBC article, “He pioneered nutritional science and invented beef extract. He invented something else, too: infant formula.”

At that time, mothers who couldn’t breastfeed found alternate solutions – some would hire a wet nurse or use animal milks. Some gave their hungry babies bread and water mush, usually from unsanitary bowls. As the article notes, “In the early 1800s, only two in three babies who weren’t breastfed lived to see their first birthday.” Liebig’s Soluble Food for Babies appealed to women who were unable to breastfeed, but this quickly moved on to become a lifestyle choice for many women.

That all sounds fine, except that the recipe for human breast milk is perfect for babies’ optimal physical and cognitive growth (and a host of other things). The recipe for infant formula is not. Yet big business continues to work hard to convince mothers that infant formula is just as good as breastmilk. And that is why we need to keep after them with strong advocacy, to confront BMS companies with evidence of their deceitful marketing and demand that they follow the rules. We also need to continue to provide facts to mothers and support governments in their commitments to The Code and to policies that enable and support mothers to breastfeed.


About the Author

Andrea Maria Menefee is a nutrition advisor in Save the Children’s Department of Global Health.

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