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Breastmilk substitutes put babies’ health at risk

Figures reveal too many babies receive artificial feeding

GENEVA, 1 AUGUST, 2007 – Children who are not exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their life are more prone to obesity, the United Nations Children’s Fund has warned.

UNICEF Central and Eastern Europe and Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS) Nutrition Specialist, Arnold Timmer, said the widespread rejection of exclusive breastfeeding has far reaching implications for children and societies.

“Breastfeeding rates in Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States are among the lowest in the world. On average only 22 per cent of mothers exclusively breastfeed for the first six months. This regional average, an improvement on the 16 per cent recorded four years ago, still compares unfavourably with sub-Saharan Africa where about 30 per cent of mothers practice exclusive breastfeeding.”

“Science has repeatedly proven that children fed infant formula or other breast milk substitutes do not reach their full potential because it is not as effective as breastmilk in promoting physical and intellectual growth. For example, breast feeding increases IQ by between two and five points over artificial substitutes.”

Non-exclusive breastfeeding affects physical growth; children are more likely to become too short for their age or overweight.

Mr Timmer continued: “The nation as a whole feels the impact because with decreasing fertility rates in many CEE/CIS countries and fewer children being born, the future economic strength of the country is at stake. A simple way to maximize national investment in children is through six months of exclusive breastfeeding. It is one of the most cost-effective health interventions available.”

The problem in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is highlighted during the 16th World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7. This year’s theme highlights how early initiation and exclusive breastfeeding for six months saves the lives of hundreds of thousands of babies and contributes to improving the health and intellectual development of many more.

Since 1991, UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have been assisting countries with implementation of the ‘Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative’ (BFHI)† in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Already, more than 1,300 hospitals in the region have been awarded the Baby-Friendly status and about one third of babies in the region are born in baby friendly hospitals. 

As a result they have now accepted that a new-born baby and mother should remain together while in a maternity hospital, rather than separating them soon after a birth. Staff now help mothers to breastfeed their babies within the first hour of birth.

Also, these hospitals say they will not accept free or low cost supplies of infant milk formula or any other breast milk substitutes, and feeding bottles or teats, and will comply with the International Code of Marketing of Breast milk Substitutes‡.

Breastfeeding is known to be one of the most powerful influences on child survival, growth and development. Together with appropriate complementary feeding from the age of six months, it prevents child malnutrition, a factor in more than half of global under-five mortality. Breastfeeding also provides ideal nutrition for young infants and reduces the incidence and severity of infectious diseases and contributes to obesity prevention.

World Breastfeeding Week is observed in more than 120 countries by UNICEF and its partners, including the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action and the WHO. The aim is to promote exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life which yields tremendous health benefits, providing critical nutrients, protection from deadly diseases such as pneumonia and fostering growth and development.

Continued breast feeding after six months, for up to two years of age or beyond, combined with safe and appropriate complementary feeding, is the optimal approach to infant and young child feeding.

† The Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative aims at improving breastfeeding practices within maternity wards, educating all health workers concerning the importance and basic skills of breastfeeding support and enforces within health facilities the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes.

‡ This important policy recommendation, adopted by all member states of the World Health Organisation, sets to regulate marketing practices of infant food manufacturers that undermine breastfeeding. 


For more information contact UNICEF Central and Eastern Europe and Commonwealth of Independent States Communication Officer, Mervyn Fletcher, on +41 79 666 8831

UNICEF is on the ground in more than 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.  The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS.  UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.







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