Watered-Down Compassion: The US’s Opposition to Breast-Feeding Resolution
In 1983, I saw firsthand why infant formula may not be such a good thing for babies, especially in poor countries. I spent a summer in Zimbabwe and watched how young mothers used formula they were given soon after giving birth. They were convinced that formula was better than breast milk.
The issue was not the ingredients in the infant formula, but how it was reconstituted. For many women in poor, rural areas, potable water is not easy to come by. I watched the new mothers use water from contaminated sources to make formula for their babies.
When I looked at the labels printed on the containers of powdered formula, it clearly said that the water should be boiled before it was used. I know this because the directions were in English, but the woman spoke only Shona. Few could even read.
As the formula they were given by their community clinic or hospital ran low, the young mothers would dilute it to make it go further. It still looked white, but had decreasing amounts of nutrients. Meanwhile, their own breast milk would dry up to the point that breastfeeding was no longer possible if they did run out of the powdered formula given to them.
I was in Zimbabwe in 1983. In 1984, a seven-year boycott of Nestlé which makes a quarter of the world’s infant formula ended as the World Health Organization (WHO) passed resolutions that created strict guidelines for the marketing of formula. Nestlé, and the other formula manufacturers, agreed to the plan. By 1988, the boycott was back on because little had changed.
Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) again sought to encourage the use of breast milk and to discourage the marketing of infant formula, especially in the developing world. Only the Unites States objected to the wording, because of its perceived negative impact on large global companies. Eventually, under Russia’s leadership, a watered-down (no pun intended) version of the resolution was passed.
It is hard to understand how the benefits of breast milk – especially for children living in poverty in developing countries – can be argued. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages all children to be breastfed, if possible, for the first six months of life. Breast milk provides more than nutrition; it also provides the mother’s antibodies to the child along with dozens of other benefits.
My experience in Zimbabwe 35 years ago made me realize that what can seem like a good thing on the surface can become problematic if its application gets lost in the need for financial gain. What can be more fundamental than encouraging mothers to feed their children with the food that God has made available for every child?
It seems that declining sales in the West, due to an increase in breastfeeding, means turning to the poor to increase profits. Once again, the most vulnerable among us are hurt.