A new report by WHO, UNICEF, and the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) reveals that despite efforts to stop the harmful promotion of breast-milk substitutes, countries are still falling short in protecting parents from misleading information.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need for stronger legislation to protect families from false claims about the safety of breast-milk substitutes or aggressive marketing practices.
Breast milk saves children’s lives as it provides antibodies that give babies a healthy boost and protect them against many childhood illnesses.
WHO and UNICEF encourage women to continue to breastfeed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The numerous benefits of breastfeeding substantially outweigh the potential risks of illness associated with the virus. It is not safer to give infant formula milk.
Of the 194 countries analyzed in the report, 136 have in place some form of legal measure related to the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes.
However, the legal restrictions in most countries do not fully cover marketing that occurs in health facilities.
Only 19 countries have prohibited the sponsorship of scientific and health professional association meetings by manufacturers of breast-milk substitutes.
“The aggressive marketing of breast-milk substitutes, especially through health professionals that parents trust for nutrition and health advice, is a major barrier to improving newborn and child health worldwide,” says Dr Francesco Branca, Director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition and Food Safety.
“Health care systems must act to boost parent’s confidence in breastfeeding without industry influence so that children don’t miss out on its lifesaving benefits.”
WHO and UNICEF recommend that babies be fed nothing but breast milk for their first 6 months, after which they should continue breastfeeding – as well as eating other nutritious and safe foods – until 2 years of age or beyond.
The Code bans all forms of promotion of breast-milk substitutes, including advertising, gifts to health workers and distribution of free samples. Labels cannot make nutritional and health claims or include images that idealize infant formula. Instead, labels must carry messages about the superiority of breastfeeding over formula and the risks of not breastfeeding.
WHO and UNICEF have urged governments to urgently strengthen legislation on the Code during the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments and civil society organizations should also not seek or accept donations of breast-milk substitutes in emergency situations