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WHO: Breast-Feeding Can Save Infants' Lives

  • Lisa Schlein

Hundreds of women promote public breastfeeding outside City Hall Square, Copenhagen, June 17, 2013.

Hundreds of women promote public breastfeeding outside City Hall Square, Copenhagen, June 17, 2013.

The World Health Organization reports that exclusive breast-feeding until six months of age could prevent the deaths of more than 200,000 infants each year.

In order to mark World Breast-Feeding Week, August 1-7, a new WHO study finds few countries are implementing the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes, 32 years after it was adopted.

The WHO considers breast-feeding the best source of nourishment for infants and young children, describing it as a practice with lifelong health benefits. The agency says people who were breast-fed as babies are, for example, less likely to be overweight or obese later in life, and may be less prone to diabetes and more likely to perform better in intelligence tests.

According to Dr. Carmen Casanovas, a breast-feeding expert with WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, nearly all mothers are physically able to breast-feed and will do so if they have accurate information and support.

However, she says, while data show fewer than four out of 10 children in the world are currently exclusively breast-fed, the practice could save an estimated 220,000 infant lives annually.

"What is appropriate breast-feeding? It means starting breast-feeding within the first hour of life with skin-to-skin contact between mother and infant," she said. "Exclusive breast-feeding — that is, that the baby is not receiving anything but breast milk during the first six months of life — and continued breast-feeding with appropriate foods until two years of age or beyond."

Casanovas says many women are discouraged from breast-feeding, or have been led to believe their children will get a better start in life if they are fed infant formula and other commercial substitutes for breast milk.

The World Health Assembly adopted the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes in 1981 to counter the aggressive marketing of these products to mothers by the industry.

WHO says infant formula does not contain the antibodies found in breast milk. It says infants in developing countries are at particular risk from the use of unsafe water and unsterilized equipment in making formula. It says babies can become malnourished because mothers may try to stretch supplies by over-diluting formula with water.

While the code was created to protect mothers from dishonest promotional campaigns, Casanovas acknowledges it has not been markedly successful. She says the WHO study shows only one out of five countries in the world are fully implementing the code. She says it is essential countries adopt and adapt the code to meet their own situation.

"They have to have a prohibition of advertisement of breast-milk substitutes; a prohibition of giving samples of breast-milk substitutes today in the health centers; a prohibition of giving gifts to the health workers, because sometimes it is not a sample, but it could be a trip to some place or any other type of gift," she said. "And a prohibition of advertising of giving samples to the mothers."

WHO says full implementation of the code is vital for reducing or eliminating all forms of promotion of breast-milk substitutes. The code is voluntary. It aims to control, not ban the marketing of these products.

WHO says it is very important for countries to monitor the implementation of the code. It notes this document allows member states to sanction those who do not comply with the regulations. It says those found in breach of the code can be fined or punished in other ways.
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