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Social media campaign offers critical support to breastfeeding mothers in China

© UNICEF China/2011/Liu
A new mother receives help from a doctor and nurse while learning how to breastfeed properly in Wuding County, Yunnan Province, China.

By Ying Shi

BEIJING, China, 4 May 2012 – When Xiaoyu Su, from Fujian Province, tried to convince her parents that her newborn daughter should be fed breastmilk and nothing else, she was criticized for being stubborn. Nevertheless, Ms. Su is proud that she managed to exclusively breastfeed her daughter for the first 6 months of life.

“Friends and family spared no effort in persuading me to give my daughter other food,” said Ms. Su. “If you don’t hold your beliefs strongly, it’s very easy to be influenced by others and give up breastfeeding.”

Luckily, she found a group of like-minded new moms through blogs, microblogs, and online forums dedicated to supporting breastfeeding.

“I am a fan of UNICEF China’s page on Weibo,” said Ms. Su, referring to a popular microblogging site similar to Twitter. “I have learned a lot about breastfeeding and child care through the content they share.”

Barriers to exclusive breastfeeding

Despite the proven benefits of breastmilk, the exclusive breastfeeding rate for children under 6 months in China is only around 28 per cent. The practice is hindered by a variety of factors: traditional beliefs or misconceptions about breastmilk; the lack of public facilities to accommodate breastfeeding mothers; a maternity leave of only three months; and the aggressive marketing of infant formula. China has emerged as a major infant formula market, with companies making exaggerated claims about their products’ benefits.

UNICEF's Weibo page promotes exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life.

“I would say the biggest obstacle to breastfeeding is traditional beliefs,” said Ms. Su. “Both my parents and parents-in-law think breastmilk alone is not nutritious enough for my baby. They forced me to seek alternatives. Meanwhile, there are too many infant formula advertisements around us – in hospitals and in the media. Even nurses tried to persuade me to feed my daughter formula just after she was born.”

Utilizing the power of social media

UNICEF is conducting a massive social media campaign to raise public awareness about the long-term and irreplaceable benefits of exclusive breastfeeding. Since the summer of 2010, UNICEF’s Weibo pages have attracted over 1,100,000 fans.

Through live coverage of UNICEF events, web chats with experts and professionals, and many other interactive programmes, UNICEF has provided hands-on guidance about breastfeeding and its benefits.

“Many new moms don’t know much about breastfeeding while the elder generations often hold false ideas or prejudices against it. Social media is a good resource for new moms to learn about breastfeeding facts,” said Yanyan Shao from Shanghai.

As the mother of an 8 month old, she follows UNICEF’s microblog attentively and shares the content with her friends and family.

“Not only did I gain knowledge about breastfeeding, I also learned about the state of children in other countries around the world through the microblog,” she said. “It’s a good initiative.”

© UNICEF China/2011/Fan
UNICEF Representative in China Gillian Mellsop and UNICEF Ambassador in China Yang Lan visit children and families in Hongbai Town, Sichuan Province, China.

And the promotion of breastfeeding is growing – both online and in real life.

Yang Lan, a UNICEF Ambassador in China and a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), submitted a resolutions during the CPPCC in March calling for more support and workplace accommodation for breastfeeding mothers, and for regulations on formula marketing.

She also posted the resolution on her microblogs, which have over 10 million followers. These posts triggered heated discussions on the benefit of breastfeeding, with tens of thousands of people leaving comments or reposting the information on their own social media sites.

‘Let breastmilk be the infant’s first taste’

“I didn’t know that breastmilk contains antibodies and lymphocytes from the mother until I read about it on UNICEF’s microblog,” said Jiangqun An, the mother of an 18 month old in Beijing. “There are many online forums and blogs discussing breastfeeding tips, and I saw UNICEF’s content being frequently reposted by others.”

In fact, breastfeeding offers far greater benefits than formula. Infants who are breastfed grow up to have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and lower rates of obesity. Breastfeeding reduces mothers’ risk of breast and ovarian cancers, and speeds their recovery from pregnancy and labour. By contrast, infant formula is often expensive and, if improperly prepared, can be unsafe. UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) both recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life.

“Exclusively breastfed children are brighter and healthier. They and their mothers will gain significant lifelong benefits, but we need to support breastfeeding and regulate the marketing of infant formula better,” said Yang Lan. “Let breastmilk be the infant’s first taste.”



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