New research criticises the marketing of baby formula milk for deceptively suggesting it can alleviate fussiness, prolong sleep, and even encourage superior intelligence in babies.
A series of reports published in The Lancet, a collaboration by 25 experts from 12 countries, claims commercial milk formula companies used tactics to sway governments akin to the strategies used by the tobacco industry, including corporate-funded scientific research and lobbying governments to avoid regulation.
The global commercial milk formula industry is worth around $79 billion dollars annually.
Fewer than half of the world's infants and young children are breastfed as recommended, according to the report.
The Infant Nutrition Council CEO Jan Carey refuted the claims made about infant formula marketing in The Lancet.
"The Lancet articles are an attack on marketing that simply does not exist - because there is no direct marketing of infant formula to consumers," she told ACM.
ANU college of health and medicine associate professor Julie Smith told ACM that women have become disconnected from the experience of birthing due to systemic social and economic pressures to return to work.
"Women whose jobs involve changing sheets in a hotel might have rights in law to get breastfeeding breaks. But they're too scared to ask for them because their employers will sack them, because we've got such a casualised labor force.
"So people at the bottom of the economic pile are the ones that are less likely to breastfeed in our culture."
In most low-income and middle-income countries, exclusive breastfeeding rates remain below the global targets of 50 per cent by 2025 and 70 per cent by 2030.
Endorsed midwife practicing at Northern Beaches Midwifery, Suzanne John, acknowledged that breastfeeding could be a difficult experience for new mothers.
"In my experience the majority of mothers will have positive intentions and start out breastfeeding their baby, then encounter problems. These can include sore nipples, engorged breasts, mastitis, pain, and difficulty latching, to mention just a few," she said.
"When women encounter these problems, they need help and support from a knowledgeable clinician, that understands the breastfeeding process."
Breastfeeding researcher and health professional educator at the Australian Breastfeeding Association Susan Tawia told ACM that mothers should be aware of the significant health benefits associated with breastfeeding.
"I think it's really important for mums to know that if they breastfeed, they've got reduced risk of things like breast cancer and ovarian cancer. But also things like cardiovascular disease and type two diabetes," she said.
"Breastfeeding rates actually don't start low. In the Australian population, most mums actually start breastfeeding. But they lose confidence in their ability to breastfeed. And that's a little bit around the formula manufacturers undermining them by telling that their products are fantastic," she said.
Australia is one of only a few countries worldwide that has not implemented the The World Health Organization (WHO) International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes into national law.
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The first paper in the Lancet series analyses marketing claims that exploit parental anxieties around infant fussiness, crying, colic or sleep. The authors argue that when mothers are adequately supported these concerns can be managed with breastfeeding.
The Infant Nutrition Council's Ms Carey said parents needed to have sufficient information about their options.
"Not all infant formula is the same, and parents need to be able to differentiate, so it's important all information is readily available to them via healthcare professionals.
"Such marketing does not undermine breastfeeding, and nor would the Infant Nutrition Council (INC) or its members ever do that."
Policy recommendations to support women breastfeeding include bringing Australia's laws around marketing of baby formula in line with the WHO conventions as well as extending the duration of paid maternity leave.
"We've got to have baby friendly hospital staff, we've got to get the medical training, and the medical workforce skilled up on supporting breastfeeding, we've got to give women the sort of births where they can actually have some chance of successfully breastfeeding instead of overly interventionist childbirth," Professor Smith said.
"And we've got to have adequate duration of paid maternity leave."
The World Health Organization recommends exclusively breastfeeding babies for the first six months and giving breast milk alongside solid food until the age of two or beyond.
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