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Save the Children has just released a new report, Superfood for Babies (pdf), which states that many manufacturers of formula are using marketing practices that target both mothers and health care professionals, by showering them with free gifts and formula samples and promoting misleading nutritional claims about formula. Save the Children notes that this is in direct violation of international codes of practice related to the marketing of breast milk substitutes, which was adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981 in response to a decline in breastfeeding. In their in-depth report, Save the Children notes that many of the shady practices used by formula companies have zero scientific basis — and worse, these marketing practices present a significant barrier when it comes to new mothers breastfeeding.

Not all the news in the report is bad. For example, Save the Children states that breastfeeding encouragement overall has made a dramatic difference in the world during the last decade, helping to reduce the number of children dying from preventable disease from 12 million to 6.9 million. Still, things could be a lot better. As it stands, malnutrition is still the underlying cause of a third of all child deaths. Since breastfeeding is one of the best ways to defeat malnutrition, formula companies are pushing more than synthetic milk, they may be pushing death in a can. Keep reading to learn more about the new Superfood for Babies report.

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The Power of the First Hour

Save the Children’s report focuses on critical messages including, “The power of the first hour,” a statement based on Save the Children’s estimate that if all babies were breastfed within the first hour of life, 830,000 children’s lives would be saved every year. More facts from the new report are below:

  • 22% of newborn deaths could be prevented if breastfeeding started within the first hour after birth (as researched in rural Ghana).
  • 16% of newborn deaths could be prevented if breastfeeding started within the first 24 hours after birth (as researched in rural Ghana).
  • An infant given breast milk within an hour of birth is up to three times more likely to survive than one breastfed a day later (as researched in Nepal).
  • At six months, infants who are not breastfed are 15% more likely to die from pneumonia and 11% more likely to die of diarrhea than those who are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. (According to UNICEF)
  • Infants who are not breastfed at all may have as much as 14 times greater risk of death than those who were exclusively breastfed, while those who were partially breastfed may have 4 times greater risk of death (as researched in Brazil).

Stacks of research about the amazing benefits of breastfeeding have been accumulating for years, and the formula companies know it. In spite of this, formula companies keep pushing their products and it’s not surprising that

92 million children under six months of age are either artificially fed (with formula) or fed a mixture of breast milk and other foods. That’s two out of three babies worldwide who are not receiving the benefits of breast milk.

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Worldwide Barriers to Breastfeeding

The Save the Children report states that it’s specifically a “call to action for the world to rediscover the importance of breastfeeding and for a commitment to support mothers to breastfeed their babies, especially in the poorest communities in the poorest countries.” But, breastfeeding barriers are far from just a third-world problem. Mothers in America face many of the same problems that mothers in other countries face. In fact, just 1/3 of all American mothers meet their breastfeeding goals. Save the Children points out the following four main barriers to breastfeeding:

  • Community and cultural pressures: Although there is plenty of clear evidence that early and exclusive breastfeeding is the best way to feed babies, many mothers in poor countries are given bad advice or are pressured into harmful formula alternatives. Common practices in other countries include denying the newborn colostrum and/or giving other foods or liquids before starting breastfeeding.
  • A chronic shortage of health workers: One-third of infants around the world are born without a skilled birth attendant present. Save the Children’s analysis of data from 44 countries found that women who do have a skilled attendant present at birth are twice as likely to initiate breastfeeding within the first hour.
  • The Big Business barrier: Clearly, there’s evidence that certain infants should be formula-fed. However, Save the Children states that the marketing activities of some manufacturers have led to infant formula being used unnecessarily and improperly. Marketing tactics that have been shown to undermine breastfeeding include advertising, free samples, targeting mothers and health claims on packaging.

All of the above are very real breastfeeding barriers mothers must fight against right here in the United States. We don’t have to stand for it though. Not in other countries, and certainly not right in our own backyard. Below are some actions you can take to help advocate for mothers and babies all over the world.

Sign Save the Children’s petition. This petition calls on Nestlé and Danone to always put children’s health first, including stopping any actions that undermine breastfeeding, changing the way they market their formula, and including health warnings on their products which state that breastfeeding is best.

Support other mothers. Community and cultural pressures on new moms are significant abroad and here in the USA. You can make a difference by supporting mothers you know who need help, especially if you were able to breastfeed your own child. Don’t lecture or push or pull that whole, I’m better than you mentality, but DO positively support your peers by offering helpful advice, resources and support so that your friends and their babies benefit from your experience.

Take a stand and breastfeed your own children. Don’t let lack of support or the glowing reports of formula companies lure you into formula feeding. Almost all women can breastfeed successfully, meaning, there are few medical reasons that a mom would not be able to breastfeed. In almost all cases, when mothers in the USA fail to breastfeed it’s due to one of those key barriers noted above. It doesn’t have to be this way though. See the links below for help and support.

+ Superfood for Babies: How overcoming barriers to breastfeeding will save children’s lives (pdf)