Mothers are often misled to believe their children are better nourished with commercial substitutes

Only 19 per cent of countries of 199 countries, subscribing to the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, have passed laws incorporating all Code’s recommendations, according to a World Health Organisation report published ahead of World Breastfeeding Week.

Breastfeeding, the best source of nourishment for infants and young children, is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival. People who were breastfed as babies are less likely to be overweight or obese later in life; they may also be less prone to diabetes and perform better in intelligence tests. But globally, only an estimated 38 per cent of infants are exclusively breastfed for six months.

In India, 46 per cent of infants are exclusively breastfed in their first six months and there are stringent laws against marketing of breast-milk substitutes.

“Nearly all mothers are physically able to breastfeed and will do so if they have accurate information and support,” said Carmen Casanovas, an expert on breastfeeding with WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development. “But in many cases, women are discouraged from doing so and are misled to believe that they are giving their children a better start in life by buying commercial substitutes.”

Only 37 of the 199 countries (19 per cent) reporting to WHO on the Code have passed laws incorporating all of its recommendations — 69 countries (35 per cent) fully prohibit advertising of breast-milk substitutes; 62 (31 per cent) completely prohibit free samples or low-cost supplies for health services; 64 (32 per cent) completely prohibit gifts of any kind from relevant manufacturers to health workers; 83 (42 per cent) require a message about the superiority of breastfeeding on breast-milk substitute labels; and only 45 countries (23 per cent) report having a functioning implementation and monitoring system.

Mothers are often inundated with incorrect and biased information both directly — through advertising, health claims, information packs and sales representatives — and indirectly — through the public health system, the report notes. For example, the distribution of “educational materials” on breastfeeding produced by manufacturers of infant formula has a negative impact on breastfeeding practice.

Experts say breast milk gives infants all the nutrients they need for a healthy development. It is safe and contains antibodies that help protect infants from common childhood illnesses. Breastfeeding also benefits mothers. Exclusive breastfeeding is associated with a natural (though not fail-safe) method of birth control (98 per cent) protection in the first six months after birth). It reduces risks of breast and ovarian cancer.