July 9, 2018 -- Surprise and disappointment continued to register this week over reported U.S. opposition to an international resolution to encourage breastfeeding.
This spring at the World Health Organization's World Health Assembly, the U.S. delegation opposed Ecuador’s resolution to encourage breastfeeding and limit marketing claims about breast milk replacements, the New York Times reported Sunday. The U.S. was originally expected to support the movement. But delegates instead threatened retaliatory trade measures on Ecuador if they refused to drop the resolution, according to the report.
“It was very disturbing to see the U.S. intimidate countries that want to protect their infant and maternal health, and especially in countries where resources are economically stressed, it’s critical to do so,” says Elisabeth Sterken, national director of the Infant Feeding Action Coalition in Canada
The resolution is backed by more than 40 years of research showing the benefits of breastmilk for newborns and mothers, especially when compared with breastmilk substitutes.
“Just starting with the ingredients in formula, you’ve got modified cow’s milk, proteins, and oils, which are very different from the fats in human milk. You’ve also got additives, multiplying agents -- all kinds of things that are required to make something that looks like milk,” Sterken says.
The health benefits of breastfeeding for mothers include lowered risk for obesity, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases. Breast milk provides babies with essential nutrients, necessary hormones, and antibodies that help protect infants from infections.
“The amazing thing about human milk is that it’s genetically specific,” Sterken says. “What’s in human milk is genetically specific for its own infant. Milk from a mother to a child is also nutritionally specific. As a child develops, the milk changes with the needs of the child. You just can’t expect similar outcomes between breastmilk and formula.”
Formula Makers Push Back
Makers of infant formula have countered that numerous studies also show that “infants who are formula-fed also grow and develop naturally,” according to the Infant Nutrition Council of America.
Efforts to reach the council for comment on the resolution dispute were unsuccessful.
A 2016 editorial in the journal The Lancet points out that breastfeeding is “one of the few health-positive behaviors” that is more popular in poorer countries than in richer ones. Mothers in lower-income countries tend to breastfeed for up to 1 year, while less than 20% of mothers in higher-income countries do. The editorial suggests that falling rates of breastfeeding across the globe have affected the health of newer generations.
“If mothers are more aware of the side effects of formula feeding and want to do what’s best for their children, society needs to support that,” Sterken says.
Despite the U.S. efforts, the resolution was not struck down completely, The Times reported.
Caitlin Oakley, national spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says her agency was the leading negotiator for the U.S. and says that no threats over trade sanctions were made.
Attempts to portray the U.S. position as “anti-breastfeeding” are “patently false,” she says in a statement.
“The United States has a long history of supporting mothers and breastfeeding around the world and is the largest bilateral donor of such foreign assistance programs,” Oakley says.
The U.S., she says, wants women to be able to “make the best choices for the nutrition of their babies.”
Some women are not able to breastfeed and should not be stigmatized, Oakley says. Those women should have access to information and alternatives.
As supporters of the resolution rushed to find another sponsor, many poorer nations in Africa and Latin America retracted their support, fearing retaliation from the U.S., the report states. The resolution ultimately passed when Russia stepped in as the sponsor.
The U.S. made no attempt to threaten Russia, the report states.