The Mess America Has Made for Breastfeeding Families
On July 8, the NYT published an article amplifying a report originally published by Amruta Byatnal, stating that President Trump’s administration opposed the introduction of a resolution to encourage breastfeeding at the World Health Assembly in May. The internet immediately responded with shock, confusion, and outrage.
How did we find ourselves in this position where the US, a developed nation that has the power to do so much good, is not supporting a worldwide resolution to encourage breastfeeding? Sadly, this prioritization of corporate profits over the health and wellbeing of our most vulnerable citizens — babies — is not simply a product of the current administration. The US has never adopted the WHO Code since its inception in 1981.
Due to worldwide declining rates of breastfeeding in the 1970s, the World Health Organization and UNICEF developed and published the WHO Code for Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, a public health policy that aims to protect mothers and babies, in May, 1981. “The Code,” as it is known, outlines the basic principles of a strategy to promote breastfeeding, the safe use of breastmilk substitutes such as commercial formula, and ethical practices for corporations selling products that can discourage and undermine breastfeeding. The Code is not legally enforceable unless adopted into legislation, a measure which 84 countries have undertaken, including Canada and Australia, as well as most of Africa, Asia, Europe (even Switzerland, home of formula giant Nestle), and South America. The United States is the only modern democracy that continues to refuse to adopt this code as legislation, aligning with nations such as Somalia and Kazakhstan, showing favor for corporations’ profits over public health.
According to reports, at this year’s World Health Assembly, the US not only failed to adopt these measures but sought to weaken the resolution’s phrasing globally and even went so far as to threaten Ecuador with punitive trade policies if they introduced the measure.
According to the World Health Organization, protecting and promoting breastfeeding to optimal levels would save 820,000 child lives per year by preventing deadly illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhea, and necrotizing enterocolitis as well as decreasing the instances of SIDS related deaths. Protecting and promoting breastfeeding would also save 20,000 global maternal lives per year by decreasing breast cancer rates. When mothers are breastfeeding, they miss fewer days of work, and children have fewer bouts of illness. Additionally, optimal breastfeeding could save the United States over $2.4 billion per year in healthcare costs.
These measures set forth by The Code have an incredible impact on breastfeeding rates. In a breakdown of how formula marketing impacts families, the Best for Babes website states,
Tremendous damage to mothers and babies occurs when formula companies market their products directly to parents through hospitals, physicians, health care professionals, and networking, peer support and “education” groups (such as expecting mother “classes”, lunches or events). We love to claim we are savvier at looking past the claims of a print ad or commercial – even when studies show us that rates of breastfeeding decline when formula advertising increases–but it is undeniable that we are easily influenced and persuaded by our trusted doctors, family members, and peers.
The Code does not restrict families’ access to breast milk substitutes in any way or refute the fact that infant formula is a reasonable substitute for babies when breast milk is not available. What the Code does is recommend a set of guidelines to protect families from predatory marketing from formula companies.
What do we mean by predatory marketing? Predatory marketing practices are activities that are intended to harm or eliminate the competition. In this case, the competition for formula companies is breastfeeding. This means that formula companies actively engage in practices that are intended to harm or eliminate breastfeeding to increase their profits. This is not rhetoric; studies have shown time and time again the negative impact that formula samples have on breastfeeding rates. This is also seen in formula companies’ advertising campaigns specifically aimed at breastfeeding mothers — you may know it as formula designed for supplementing. The physiology of lactation is well understood and any time feeding at the breast is interrupted, a woman’s milk production is negatively affected. It’s also no coincidence that formula companies send out coupons for their products five to six weeks after a baby is born, right around the time that the majority of American women return to work and must express milk if they want to continue breastfeeding.
Even for formula feeding families, these marketing practices are harmful. Because of the exorbitant amount spent on marketing, commercial formula costs to the consumer are exponentially higher than their actual production cost. Families who are given free formula samples in the hospital are likely to stick with those brands, which on average increases the cost of infant feeding by $700 a year. What happens when a family is not supported in breastfeeding and can’t afford the cost of formula? Many families turn to watering down formula, introducing less nutritious foods too soon, or underfeeding to try to stretch the formula they can afford. Globally, undernutrition is responsible for 45% of child deaths, roughly 3.1 million children per year.
The practice of bullying less affluent nations into also rejecting breastfeeding protections is an egregious ethical maelstrom that results in even higher rates of illness and death. When these nations are pressured to allow formula companies to run rampant, the insidious practices consume their population. It goes something like this: formula company advertises to parents who are told formula is cleaner, healthier, and more nutritious for their babies; parents are given free samples, which they use and, as a result, their baby spends less time at the breast; the samples run out and the parents are so economically disadvantaged that they cannot afford to continue purchasing formula, but at this point the mother’s milk supply is gone; the baby suffers malnutrition and the parents suffer greater economic strain trying to keep their baby alive. All of this could be prevented by the protection and promotion of breastfeeding, which is free.
Today President Trump tweeted, “The failing NY Times Fake News story today about breast feeding must be called out. The U.S. strongly supports breast feeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula. Many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty.”
This position demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of the resolution. As mentioned already, the Code in no way denies access to formula for families who need or want it. Furthermore, women who are malnourished and / or impoverished are those most protected by the Code.
Here’s what you can do right now to increase awareness and understanding of why the Code is so important for our babies, our mothers, our families, our nation, and our world:
Join in the Babies’ Heath Before Corporate Wealth Nurse In and Protest on August 5, 2018! Invite your friends! We will gather at state capitol buildings and the US Health and Human Services building in D.C. to demand that we promote, protect, and support breastfeeding as a public health issue.
Share this to social media: post, tweet, tag!
@WhiteHouse, @realDonaldTrump, and/or @POTUS
Contributing money combats corporate lobbyists and promotes and amplifies real world efforts by grassroots movements. Support our efforts here:
Write letters and emails.
Email the Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary@HHS.gov
Click here for a sample script.
Show up in person.
Hand deliver these messages or request to speak to your representatives face-to-face.
Contact the media.
If you’re a lactation professional, contact your local news and offer to be interviewed as an expert.
If you’re not a lactation professional, contact your local news and media outlets and demand coverage of this issue.
Whatever method you choose, we need you to take action now. Breastfeeding has never been in the news like it is today – and we need to harness this buzz before the formula companies use it to push us even farther back. Breastfeeding is under attack. Tweet, post, tag, donate, attend – whatever you can do, for the love of babies, do it now.
The original proposed Resolution can be reviewed here
The approved Resolution can be viewed here
Updated 7/11/18 to reflect the original source of the reporting