Opinion: Let’s protect, promote and support breastfeeding

Breastfeeding advocates around the world were appalled recently when the US refused to pass a run-of-the-mill World Health Organization resolution that encourages countries to “protect, promote and support” breastfeeding, instead electing to favour the interests of infant formula companies. 

Though the US is historically well known for prioritising commercial interests above public health outcomes, many agreed that this decision was next level.

Although in Australia we are more advanced in our thinking, there is still work to do. Despite wide acknowledgement of the strong health and nutritional benefits of breastfeeding, only about 15% of new mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies for the recommended six months (2010 Australian National Infant Feeding Survey).

In drafting its new ‘Enduring National Breastfeeding Strategy’, Australia has an opportunity to ensure that we “protect, promote and support” breastfeeding in tangible and meaningful ways. But what are the critical things we need to do, to ensure as many babies as possible get the healthiest start in life?

Only about 5% of women are unable to produce enough milk with the right help, and toddlers certainly don’t need commercial toddler milk.

Regulating an industry that makes profits on the back of women choosing not to breastfeed is a good start. Although there’s no doubt that safe infant formula is essential for some families, we also need to acknowledge that the industry’s aim is to increase market share, not to promote infant health.

Messages around new mothers struggling with low milk supply, and toddlers needing ‘toddler milk’ to supplement their diets are both unhelpful and untrue. Only about 5% of women are unable to produce enough milk with the right help, and toddlers certainly don’t need commercial toddler milk.

We also need to realise that bottle feeding has become so normalised that many women seeking to breastfeed are missing out. More support for families, health professionals, workplaces and childcare centres will ensure that new mothers feel able to look after their newborn and master breastfeeding.

Australia’s new breastfeeding strategy covers all these points, and more. However, it doesn’t come with any funding to carry out the initiatives it put forwards. 

While the infant formula industry is a US$45 billion global business, with the means to run slick publicity campaigns targeting parents and health professionals, breastfeeding advocates rely mainly on well-documented evidence to get their messages across.

If this new strategy is to have any impact, policymakers at all levels of government need to understand that Australians want funding for evidence-based public health promotion, not the promotion of commercial interests like in the US.

Associate Professor Lisa Amir is a Principal Research Fellow at La Trobe University.