UNICEF urges Chinese mothers to make breast milk their first choice for babies

31 July 2009

July 31, 2009, Beijing – Breast milk is not only best and most natural way of nourishing infants in normal conditions but also a life-saving source of nutrition in emergencies, according to a statement released globally today by UNICEF, the UN agency for children. The statement was released on the occasion of World Breastfeeding Week (August 1 - 7) which is celebrated annually at around this time.

The theme of the Week in 2009 is 'Breastfeeding, a Vital Emergency Response: Are You Ready?' UNICEF is joining the Government of China to draw attention to this question and reverse the country's rapidly decreasing rate of breastfeeding.

"China is a country with frequent natural disasters, most recently flooding and landslides in the south and last year the massive earthquake in and around Sichuan. We have seen moving stories about a mother who kept breastfeeding her baby girl under the rubble until the last minute of her life and how a policewoman breastfed several displaced infants. These women knew that breastfeeding is the safest and easiest way to provide nutrition to young infants during emergencies. In World Breastfeeding Week this year, we want to reiterate the importance of breastfeeding during such crises", said Dr. Yin Yin Nwe, UNICEF Representative to China.

Dr. Nwe went on to explain that breast milk provides the best nutrition for infants and that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life (with no other liquids or food) is recommended by global authorities, including UNICEF and the WHO.

"Breast milk also contains antibodies that can protect infants against infections that are more common during the crowding and poor hygiene that often occurs during natural disasters and other emergencies. Food supplies, safe water and sanitation are often reduced after these events, but breast milk protects infants from illnesses like diarrhea and respiratory infections that are common when people are displaced and normal supply channels disrupted."

In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake, UNICEF worked with the Ministry of Health in 84 counties in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi to train local health staff on breastfeeding management, and advocated for breastfeeding both in emergency and normal situations.

The alternative to breastfeeding, the use of breast milk substitutes such as infant formula, relies on a reliable source of clean water and facilities to wash bottles. Formula feeding was also the centre of a man-made disaster when supplies tainted with the chemical melamine affected over 300,000 babies in China late last year, resulting in the hospitalization of more than 50,000 and deaths of at least 3 infants. The scandal drew global attention to the increasing reliance on and trust of mothers in breast milk substitutes, despite growing concerns about the safety and long term health impact of formula feeding.

Global health authorities agree that despite inferences to the contrary by formula producers, there is no substitute for the benefits that breast milk provides. They also point to the long term health benefits of breast feeding for infants in the areas of intelligence, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and probable reduced risks of certain cancers and cardiovascular illnesses amongst women who breast feed.

Rein in misleading marketing of baby formula

However, improving the rate of breastfeeding in China is proving difficult for health authorities. One of the major reasons is the aggressive and sometimes unethical advertising and marketing tactics of some formula producers.

A market monitoring report by the China Consumers' Association in 2008 found that  milk powder producers promote their products via the mass media and use misleading messages to convince mothers that formula is similar to or even better than breast milk. Some health facilities are even offered incentives to advertise or recommend baby formula to vulnerable new mothers. Last year alone, formula companies spent about US$765 million to advertise their products in China.

In June, the China Consumers' Association presented violations of the International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes and secured a commitment to comply with the Code from 18 formula companies, signed in front of several relevant government departments.

UNICEF Representative Dr. Nwe attended the event and applauded the milestone public commitment to ensure that the marketing Code is implemented. She also urged health authorities to step up their efforts to ensure that families everywhere are aware that the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh those of formula feeding.

Key Facts

6 months
According to the Lancet medical journal, optimal breastfeeding in the first two years of life, and particularly exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, would have the single largest impact on child survival of all preventive interventions, reducing under five mortality by around 13% or more than 1 million deaths per year.

20%
In the past 10 years, 14 countries, including some that have experienced disasters and crises, have shown more than 20% increase in rates of exclusive breastfeeding. This indicates that it is possible to promote and protect breastfeeding in the face of aggressive marketing of infant formula.

Media contacts

Liu Li
Communication Specialist
UNICEF China
Tel: +86-10-85312612

About UNICEF

UNICEF works in some of the world's toughest places, to reach the world's most disadvantaged children. Across 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone. For more information about UNICEF and its work for children visit www.unicef.org.                                                  

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