Protecting Breastfeeding promoting infant-formula marketing restrictions: taking action during World Breastfeeding Week

A mother breastfeeding her baby

This week, Diva Fanian, WCRF International’s Policy and Public Affairs Officer, reflects on World Breastfeeding Week and why it’s so important and the role of policy in supporting mothers and babies.

Despite significant efforts to raise awareness on the importance of breastfeeding, current rates are alarmingly low, with many mothers and babies missing out on its benefits. UNICEF estimates that just 49% of newborns initiate breastfeeding within the first hour of life, and only 44% are exclusively breastfed after 6 months.

While there are some mothers who are unable to breastfeed for physiological or medical reasons, low global breastfeeding rates can be partly explained by the exposure to marketing tactics of the breastmilk substitute industry, which is shown to reduce breastfeeding initiation.

This week (August 2021) the global community is celebrating World Breastfeeding Week, under its theme Protect Breastfeeding: A Shared Responsibilityto encourage breastfeeding and improve the health of babies around the world.  The week seeks to raise awareness of the importance of breastfeeding and drive national governments to enact policy commitments to make breastfeeding an accessible option for mothers.

We are strong supporters of breastfeeding (when it is possible for mothers to do so) as we have a specific cancer prevention recommendation on lactation. In addition to promoting healthy growth in infants and protecting children against overweight and obesity, breastfeeding is also shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer in mothers.

This recommendation is aligned with World Health Organization advice, which recommends infants are exclusively breastfed for 6 months, and then up to 2 years alongside complementary foods.

Tactics that undermine breastfeeding

The adoption of The International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (The Code), which celebrated its 40th anniversary at this year’s World Health Assembly, has been an international tool used to regulate the marketing of infant formula, aiming to support parents’ choice, ensuring they are not based on inaccurate or biased marketing claims.

While The Code is lauded as a public health success, its implementation has been faced with industry resistance. Only 13% of reporting countries have implemented measures substantially in line with its provisions, and over 30% have no legal measures in place whatsoever. Coupled with this, the last few decades have seen a substantial market expansion within the formula industry.

Policies that restrict and regulate the marketing of products, whether it’s for food, beverage, alcohol or infant formula, need the support of government to regulate and protect consumers. In recent years, momentum has been gained in the development of national policies to regulate the marketing of junk food, which is shown to have an impact on children’s food consumption. Protecting consumer’s choice as it relates to infant-formula marketing should be viewed with the same level of rigor and regulation.

Low levels of action

One way to measure the implementation of The Code, is by analysing practices taken by baby food companies. Access to Nutrition has published a 2018 Index Report assessing the world’s six largest breast-milk substitute manufacturers’ marketing practices, by looking at their policy commitments, and management systems related to marketing.

Findings from the index show that among the six companies, Danone was leading in its overall score. However, all of them having scored below 60% suggests that they all need to significantly further their action to bring their marketing fully in line with The Code.

Results from the Index are notable, given the influence that infant-formula companies have in putting The Code’s commitments into practice.

Global efforts in protecting the rights of mothers and children and consumer choice as it relates to infant-formula still have some way to go. The current pandemic has also caused significant disruptions in breastfeeding support services, with countries reporting that producers of baby foods have invoked unfounded fears that breastfeeding can transmit COVID-19 and marketing their products as a safer alternative to breastfeeding. Furthermore, businesses have been quick to pivot their services and approaches to market their products during the pandemic.

Taking a comprehensive approach

All these factors have exposed the fragility of the progress made in the prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding globally. In addition to ensuring the implementation of The Code on marketing, governments should align themselves with a comprehensive set of policy actions to promote breastfeeding, such as implementing maternity leave protecting, expanding baby-friendly hospital initiatives and providing community-based interventions and education opportunities. Check out our Driving Action Framework which outlines areas where government can take action.

World Breastfeeding Week is a chance for the global community to come together to revisit global commitments to prioritise breastfeeding-friend environments for mothers and babies and galvanise much needed action.