The United States delegation to the United Nations World Health Assembly recently shocked the public health sector (and much of the world) by seeking to water down a resolution that called for governments to “protect, promote and support breastfeeding” and to restrict misleading advertising of food products that are harmful for children.
These actions were both stunning and baffling, as the benefits of breastfeeding for infants, mothers and the environment are supported by decades of established science. The World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life and support breastfeeding as the normative feeding standard.
Children who are breastfed have fewer respiratory tract and gastrointestinal infections. Breastfeeding is associated with a lower risk of sudden infant death syndrome and chronic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, and certain types of leukemia and lymphoma. Premature infants who are breastfed have a lower risk of developing necrotizing enterocolitis, an often devastating intestinal infection. There is emerging evidence of the protective effects of breastfeeding on establishing a healthy microbiome in infants. There are also studies that show breastfeeding is associated with a lower risk of obesity, as breastfeeding allows for greater self-regulation of feeding.
Mothers who breastfeed are at lower risk for certain breast and ovarian cancers, type 2 diabetes, and anemia. The increased metabolic needs associated with breastfeeding help them return to their pre-pregnancy weight.
Breastfeeding also has an extremely small carbon footprint when compared with artificial formula, which creates a tremendous amount of waste as well as utilizing energy for production and transportation. Breastfeeding is a natural resource and one of the most cost-effective measures for improving maternal and child health.
In developing countries, breastfeeding is also often a matter of life and death. For families that do not have reliable access to clean and potable water, artificial formula feeding contributes to diarrheal disease and increases the risk of infant malnutrition and death. Infant formula today is a $70 billion dollar industry, and as sales have flattened in developed countries as more women have chosen to breastfeed, the industry is looking to grow in developing nations. A study done by the UConn RUDD Center for Nutrition Policy and Obesity showed that in 2015 the industry spent $77 million in the United States to advertise baby and toddler foods, infant formulas, and toddler milks, and that 60 percent of the promoted products are not recommended for young children.
Child health providers and the public health community must make it a priority to advocate for putting children’s health above industry profits and political gain.
As part of a comprehensive approach to infant and toddler nutrition and obesity prevention, Kohl’s Start Childhood Off Right (SCOR), an initiative of Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health, advocates for and gives information about breastfeeding to pediatric practices and community outreach workers in Hartford. This information includes educating families about deceptive marketing practices and helping mothers to make the healthiest choice for themselves and their infants.
With August marking World Breastfeeding Month, those of us concerned with maternal and infant health must speak out to support breastfeeding as the healthiest infant feeding choice.
Nancy Trout, MD, MPH is co-director of Kohl’s Start Childhood Off Right, which is an initiative of Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health.
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