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UNICEF rings the alarm as breastfeeding rates plummet in East Asia

Baby food companies reminded to adhere to the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes for the protection of children's health

BANGKOK/KUALA LUMPUR, 25 May 2012 – UNICEF is worried about major declines in breastfeeding rates across East Asia and today called for greater attention to the critical importance of breastfeeding for children’s survival and cognitive development, as well as economic development in the region.

Exclusive breastfeeding contributes both directly and indirectly to sustainable development. Evidence has clearly shown that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life not only improves their future growth and educational achievement, but also significantly reduces national health costs and helps prevent chronic malnutrition.

“The falling rates of breastfeeding across East Asia are alarming”, said UNICEF Nutrition Advisor for East Asia and the Pacific France Begin. “In Thailand as little as 5 per cent of all mothers breastfeed while the rate is less than 20 per cent in Vietnam. In China, only 28 per cent of babies are breastfed,” said Begin.

Aggressive marketing

According to UNICEF, the low breastfeeding rates are the result of both economic developments enabling more women to enter the workforce, as well as aggressive marketing of infant formula in the region.

“Mothers across the region face increasing demands on their time, often have to return to work early after childbirth, and may have limited opportunities to breastfeed or express their milk in the workplace,” said Begin. “At the same time, baby food companies are targeting the fast growing economies in East Asia with aggressive marketing campaigns, persuading mothers to give up breastfeeding and purchase their products despite the drawbacks for their children.”

In India where all advertising for formula is prohibited, sales of infant formula remain low and breastfeeding rates are not declining.

Code of Marketing

To help stem this drop in breastfeeding rates in East Asia, UNICEF is calling on baby food companies to adhere to the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and welcomes the efforts of several countries in East Asia to adopt the Code of Marketing and enforce it through national legislation. UNICEF is also working closely with businesses in the region to ensure that women can enjoy the right to adequate maternity leave and nursing breaks.

The Code of Marketing contributes to the safe feeding and better nutrition of babies by protecting breastfeeding and prohibiting the promotion of breastmilk substitutes, feeding bottles and teats. The Code of Marketing does not ban the sale of formulas, only the marketing practices that entice mothers to replace their breastmilk with commercial substitutes.

“As the economies of East Asia-Pacific region continue to grow and more and more women enter the workforce, it is critical that mothers understand the long-term benefits breastfeeding will bring to their children”, says Begin. “When companies adhere to the Code of Marketing it will be easier for mothers to make an informed choice. No formula can substitute the importance of breastmilk for children’s survival, growth and development.”



France Begin, Regional Nutrition Advisor for East Asia and the Pacific is available for interviews.

Breastfeeding in Malaysia
Ministry of Health statistics reveal that 14.5 per cent babies in Malaysia were exclusively breastfed below six months in 2006, while 19.3 per cent were exclusively breastfed below four months. Compared with the findings of the National Health and Morbidity Survey 2 (1996), there was a significant decline of 9.7 per cent in the prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding below four months and a concurrent rise in the prevalence of babies who were predominantly breastfed but given additional water.

UNICEF-SSM BBPC on Nursing Mothers Program in the Workplace
The 2nd Best Business Practices Circular from UNICEF and the Companies Commission of Malaysia titled “Nursing Mothers Program in the Workplace” aims to promote and facilitate continued exclusive breastfeeding after mothers return to work while complementing national goals for exclusive breastfeeding of no less than six months. Read the circular.

For more information, please contact:

Indra Kumari Nadchatram
UNICEF Media, Malaysia
+6012 292 6872,

Sasha Surandran
UNICEF Media, Malaysia
+6019 658 5160,





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