UNICEF discourages government from marketing breast milk substitutes

Governments are urged to enact laws to control the inappropriate marketing of breast milk substitutes including infant formula, feeding bottles and teats in order to protect and promote breastfeeding.

The call follows a new report indicating that heavily marketed substitutes are discouraging mothers from breastfeeding despite scientifically proven advantages of breastfeeding.

The report “Marketing of breast-milk substitutes: National implementation of the International Code – Status report 2016”, was authored by World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF with the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN).

For the UN health experts, there’s no substitute to breastfeeding; mothers’ milk is safe, clean and helps to protect infants against many common childhood illnesses. But the practice faces increasing pressure from aggressive marketing tactics by producers of breast-milk substitutes – a market sector that’s worth almost 45 billion US dollars globally.

Their review of nearly 200 countries found that only 39 of them fully respect the international code that regulates how breast-milk substitutes are promoted.    Of these, just over half sufficiently prohibit advertising and promotion while fewer than half prohibit the provision to health facilities of free or low-cost supplies of breast-milk substitutes.

“It is encouraging to see more countries pass laws to protect breast feeding but there are still far too many places where mothers are inundated with incorrect and biased information through advertising and unsubstantiated health claims,” the Director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development Dr Francesco Branca says.

Dr Branca adds that such aggressive advertising can distort parents’ perceptions and undermine their confidence in breastfeeding, with the result that far too many children miss out on its many benefits.

UNICEF’s Marilena Viviani said that in some countries, breastfeeding rates are critically low, at just seven per cent. The UNICEF spokesperson also cited new research indicating that increasing breastfeeding to near-universal levels could save the lives of more than 820,000 children under the age of five every year.

“Mothers deserve a chance to get the correct information: that they have readily available the means to protect the health and well-being of their children. Clever marketing should not be allowed to fudge the truth that there is no equal substitute for a mother’s own milk,” UNICEF Chief of Nutrition Werner Schultink says.

WHO and UNICEF recommend that babies are fed nothing but breast milk for their first 6 months, after which they should continue breastfeeding – as well as eating other safe and nutritionally adequate foods – until 2 years of age or beyond. In that context, WHO Member States have committed to increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first 6 months of life to at least 50 percent by 2025 as one of a set of global nutrition targets.