Vietnam Votes to Support Breastfeeding

The following blog was originally posted on Impatient Optimists. Written by Nemat Hajeebhoy, Roger Mathisen, Ellen Piwoz and Vu Thi Thu Ha. 

During the first two years of a child’s life, mothers are faced with critically important decisions about how to feed their new baby—decisions that have a life-long impact. But what happens when a mother is faced with an environment that may limit her ability to make the healthiest choice, like needing to return to work before she can complete six full months of exclusive breastfeeding (the recommended optimal way of feeding infants)—or receiving misleading information about the benefits of infant formula compared to breast milk?

This past June 18, Vietnam’s National Assembly addressed these barriers and voted to extend paid maternity leave from four to six months. The landmark decision, which passed with more than 90 percent of the vote, represents a bold departure from other maternity leave policies in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam joins a growing number of countries in the world that ban advertising on breast milk substitutes for children up to 24 months.

Three days later, on June 21, Vietnam’s leadership made another bold move to expand the ban on advertising of breast milk substitutes for infants from six to 24 months, including feeding bottles and teats. This incredible advancement will align Vietnam’s law more closely with the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and subsequent World Health Assembly resolutions. Vietmam joins a growing number of countries in the world that ban advertising on breast milk substitutes for children up to 24 months.

These changes didn’t happen overnight. Together, organizations from the National Assembly’s own Institute of Legislative Studies; the Ministry of Health; UNICEF; Alive & Thrive; to the World Health Organization were key players in a joint advocacy strategy that enabled the passage of these bold policies that will significantly influence the infant and young child nutrition landscape, as well as the lives of mothers who want the freedom to make the best decisions they can about their infant’s health and lives, in Viet Nam.

How did these changes come to pass?

Beginning early with formative research on infant and young child feeding (IYCF) practices and opinion leader attitudes, it became clear that the National Assembly would need solid evidence (combining socio-cultural, scientific, and economic data) from which to formulate their decisions.

For example, a study conducted by Alive & Thrive found that returning to work before six months is one of the primary barriers to exclusive breastfeeding cited by Vietnamese mothers. Research and data like this led to the creation of compelling communication materials to advocate for both policies: highlighting the importance of exclusive and continued breastfeeding and the risks of not breastfeeding. The success of maternity leave extension was dependent upon demonstrating broad support among women and employers, and coupling that research with  data detailing the country’s insurance fund’s ability to absorb the additional cost.

Throughout the effort, the Vietnam media was consistently engaged to tell the story of the impact of poor infant and young child feeding on the health, social, and economic development of the country. The result: a change in two key policies impacting the health and lives of infants, young children and mothers!

The commitment of Vietnam’s National Assembly to invest in the health of infants and young children, by breaking down these barriers for mothers, is a success story that can serve as a model for other nations. The partnership is developing a case study to inform policy activities on early child nutrition. Interested in learning more? Check out the Alive & Thrive web site.

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