Breastfeeding is a human right, say UN experts

UN experts criticise under-regulation of £36 billion industry, saying marketing practices still negatively affect the choices women around the world make about how to feed their children

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The Independent Online

States must take urgent action to protect babies and mothers from “misleading, aggressive and inappropriate” marketing of breast-milk substitutes, a group of UN experts has said. 

Breastfeeding is a human rights issue for babies and mothers and should be protected and promoted for the benefit of both, the organisation said in a statement slamming the multi-billion dollar gobal industry in infant formula.

The forceful promotion of products that compete with breastfeeding continues to undermine efforts to improve global breastfeeding rates, which have now been static for two decades, said Special Rapporteurs on the right to health and food, a Working Group on discrimination against women, and the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

“Marketing practices often negatively affect the choices women make on how to feed their infants in the best way possible, and can impede both babies and mothers from enjoying the many health benefits of breastfeeding," the organisation said, pointing out that corporations are under regulated and not properly held to account for their actions. 

The £36 billion dollar baby milk industry, which is expected to increase in value to over £56 billion in the next three years, has been subject to harsh criticism since the 1970s, when Nestlé was first accused of pushing an inferior alternative to breast milk on mothers who did not know what was best for their babies. As a result of past scandals, a legal framework has been established which could be used to crackdown on the aggressive marketing of baby milk, the UN said, but most states are not taking advantage of the tools available to them to stop unethical corporate practices.  

“Simply too few States have adopted the necessary stringent, comprehensive and enforceable legal measures,” the UN said. “We call on them to adopt such measures to protect babies and mothers from misleading marketing practices, and fully align with the recommendations contained in the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and subsequent relevant World Health Assembly resolutions, and new guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO).”   

Aggressive marketing remains particularly harmful when it targets untapped markets in developing countries, the experts said.

The World Health Organisation has estimated that the lives of more than 820,000 children could be saved every year if all mothers followed its advice to start breastfeeding within an hour of birth, give only breast milk for the first six months, and continue breastfeeding until their children reach the age of two, alongside appropriate complementary foods. Breastfeeding protects against many childhood illnesses and has been found to improve the IQ of premature babies, as well as reducing the risk of breast cancer in mothers. 

But despite the advice against bottle-feeding, only an estimated one in three infants under six months are exclusively breastfed globally. This rate has seen no improvement in the last two decades.

"Breastfeeding is a human rights issue for both the child and the mother," the UN said. "Children have the right to life, survival and development and to the highest attainable standard of health...  Women have the right to accurate, unbiased information needed to make an informed choice about breastfeeding."

As well as clamping down on inappropriate marketing, UN experts highlighted practical steps governments can take to reduce barriers to women exercising their rights and to promote, support and protect breastfeeding, such as paid maternity leave, safe workplace spaces for feeding or expressing and storing milk and better training for health workers.

Women who cannot or do not want to breastfeed must not be judged of condemned, the experts cautioned, but every woman should have the opportunity to make an informed decision based on accurate and unbiased information about what is best for them and their baby. 

Access to good quality breast milk substitutes should be regulated, and affordable, they added.

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