23 February 2007, Manila . Over 100 formula feeding mothers and their babies protested in front of infant formula manufacturers’ offices, claiming milk advertisements have deceived them into giving their babies infant formula instead of breastmilk.
“My message to the milk companies is to stop deceiving those who buy infant formula,” says Nadine Sylvano, mother of five children. “They say that their milk is good for children’s brains, will make children healthy, stout and give strong bones. But it’s not true.”
“My breastfed child did not get sick often but this one, almost every month I have to bring her again to the hospital because she is sick again,” Sylvano observed.
When asked why she did not breastfeed her fifth child, Sylvano replies, “Because I did not have milk from my breasts.”
Exclusive breastfeeding rate down
Sylvano’s experience is a common one. According to the National Statistics Office, 31 per cent of mothers in the Philippines do not breastfeed because they believe that they do not have enough milk.
Only 16 per cent of babies four to five months of age are still exclusively breastfeeding.
Even though UNICEF and WHO recommend exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life, half of all babies in the Philippines are exclusively breastfed for less than one month.
Aggressive advertising and marketing of infant formula has undermined mothers’ confidence in their ability to nourish their children, claims Innes Fernandez, convenor of Save Babies Coalition.
“They were all cheated, they were all beguiled by all this false advertising, marketing activities that seduce them to buy their formula, believing the testimonials of celebrities so they were always hoping and wishing that they would have healthy babies,” Fernandez adds.
What is an informed choice?
Milk companies aver that they also advocate for breastfeeding but want to give consumers a choice.
“We believe… breastfeeding is best for babies,” says Andrew Santos, Vice-President of Wyeth Philippines. “What we have there are products that if the Mom chooses, or if for some reason she cannot breastfeed, then she is given that on her own decision, to be able to, or the paediatrician especially, to make a choice.”
Fernandez counters, however, that even medical doctors are unable to make an informed choice about infant feeding.
Dr. Lester Lora, who used to manage the maternal and child health programme in the Department of Health, says that even she was not properly informed about breastfeeding.
“During our time, nobody taught us [in medical school] about breastfeeding. Instead, we were taught how to prepare infant formula,” Dr. Lora says.
As a result, she herself fed her three sons infant formula and blames it for their lifelong battles with various diseases, from diabetes to ulcerative colitis.
Enforcement of National Milk Code urged
UNICEF has been supporting the Philippines Department of Health to more strictly enforce the National Milk Code, which regulates the marketing of breastmilk substitutes. However, in 2006, the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines, made up of milk companies among others, succeeded in appealing to the Supreme Court for a temporary restraining order on the Code’s revised implementing rules and regulations.
In the meantime, infant formula advertisements continue to make claims of health and cognitive benefits.
“Stop all these false claims,” demands Fernandez.
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