The politics of breastfeeding

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Interviews with : Elisabeth Sterken, National Director, INFACT Canada (Infant Feeding Action Coalition), Frances Jones, Lactation Consultant, Program Coordinator Lactation Services, B.C. Women's and Children's Hospitals, and Coordinator of the B.C. Women's Milk Bank, and  Anne Simmonds, RN, PhD, Perinatal Nurse Consultant, Reproductive Care Program of Nova Scotia.  

It is estimated that 1.5 million babies die each year due to inappropriate feeding practices, while millions more suffer from malnutrition related to improperly mixed formula. In the United States and Canada, as the production and marketing of pharmaceutical infant formulas to health-care providers, hospitals, and mothers rapidly expanded, breastfeeding rates dropped to all-time lows, in some areas of Canada reaching as low as 20% in the 1970s and 1980s, and even lower by 6 months of age. With the commercialization of infant feeding, breastfeeding was no longer the norm, and the health of our babies and mothers was sacrificed on the altar of corporate profits.

In 1979 the World Health Organization, in partnership with UNICEF, drafted the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, which was subsequently passed at the 1981 International Health Assembly. This Code bans the promotion of bottle feeding and sets out labeling requirements for commercial infant feeding products with the aim of restricting the unnecessary use of formula; the Canadian Government endorsed the Code, but failed to adequately enforce it in the face of industry lobbying and opposition. Opening a 'second front' in the struggle to protect and promote breastfeeding, the Baby-Friendly Initiative was launched by WHO and UNICEF in the early 1990s to impact infant feeding at the level of health services. The initiative is a global effort to implement practices that protect, promote and support breastfeeding by accrediting maternity and community health-care facilities and higher education institutions that have passed an external assessment. In Canada, B.C. Women's Hospital is the largest designated Baby-Friendly tertiary-care centre. And what is gained by the pharmaceutical and baby food industries at the expense of our babies and mothers? In 2005 the estimated world market for formula was 7.9 billion dollars. In 2009, Nestle Corporation, makers of Good Start formula, earned over 200 million from the sales of infant milks alone!

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