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UK Policy supports exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months

12th May 2003

Breastfeeding and child rights advocates expressed delight at the decision by the Department of Health to clarify its policy regarding breastfeeding. The new policy endorses the landmark Resolution, proposed by Brazil, recommending that infants be exclusively breastfed for 6 months followed by continued breastfeeding with adequate complementary foods. This was passed at the 54th World Health Assembly (WHA) in May 2001. (Note 1)

The UK decision to implement the Resolution has important implications for health throughout Europe and worldwide. The Department of health states that:

“there are proven health benefits to breastfeeding for both child and mother in the short and long term. Babies who are breastfed have a lower risk of gastro-enteritis and respiratory and ear infections. There is some evidence that long term breastfeeding may help mothers lose the excess weight they gain during pregnancy and children who are breastfed may be at lower risk of becoming obese later in childhood. Also the risk of pre-menopausal breast cancer in mothers is reduced the longer they breastfeed.”

The baby food industry in its efforts to protect and expand the 12 billion dollar baby food market - has for decades exerted a powerful pressure on Governments, lobbying against policies which aim to protect infant health and decrease rates of mortality and morbidity. Over 70 countries have adopted this policy, including Germany and earlier this year France. Last week, India, followed suit, announcing a radical improvement in its law last week and banning the promotion of all foods for infants under 2 years. (Note 2).

The new policy recognises that some mothers may not experience conditions that facilitate exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months and seeks only to empower those women who want to do this, and ensure that all women are supported in their decision to do what is best for their children's health.
Although welcomed by the consumer movement and professional bodies such as the Royal College of Midwives and Community Practitioners and Health Visitor’s Association, there is disappointment that the decision does not extend to the critically important issue of marketing. It is hoped that this will follow soon. (Note 3).

In many international fora the UK has claimed to support the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (which bans all promotion of breastmilk substitutes) and the Resolutions and Declarations relating to infant feeding which have been passed since 1981.In 1981 the UK was one of the Code’s strongest supporters. Despite the fact that the Code is a minimum requirement which is supposed to be implemented “in its entirety” the UK has failed to implement it in full and in1995 brought in a Law which permits promotion through the health care system. The decision shocked and disappointed all those who work for the protection of infant health.

In March 1995, the Labour Party (then in opposition) put forward a Motion (which received cross-party support from over 100 MPs) calling for the regulations to be annulled, stating:

“That this House is alarmed at the decision taken recently by Health Ministers to put commercial interests before infant health when it refused to ban the advertising of infant formula in the United Kingdom; is aware that such a decision is contrary to all its statements in support of an advertisement ban over the last 13 years, and contradicts also the advice given to it from major health bodies including the British Medical Association, the British Paediatric Association, and the Royal College of Midwives; and calls upon Her Majesty’s Government to rethink its approach instead of simply responding to UK baby milk companies’ promotions.”

In October 2002 the Committee Convention on the Rights of the Child called on the UK to do more to protect breastfeeding and to implement the Code.., but it has done little to prevent its health care system become flooded with commercial promotion – Companies spend at least £12 million on booklets, leaflets, and other promotions, much in the guise of ‘education materials’ - aprox £20 per baby born - in a highly competitive market worth £370million. (Note 4).

Patti Rundall, Policy Director of Baby Milk Action said:

“This new policy is a truly welcome step by the Department of Health, and we fully support it. But it must be followed with action on marketing – only when this is done will we see real changes in duration of breastfeeding. The Government must respect a child’s right to optimum health and do every thing possible to protect parents from commercial exploitation. Currently women are bombarded with conflicting messages, free samples of baby foods and drinks , labels, promotional health claims and adverts all implying that babies must be fed other foods very early and that breastfeeding can not be enough to sustain a baby for 6 months. There is no evidence that early complementary feeding has any advantage for babies, and plenty of evidence that it can do a lot of harm.”

For more information contact: Patti Rundall, Policy Director, Baby Milk Action, 23 St Andrew's St, Cambridge, CB2 3AX. Mobile: 07786 523493, Work Tel: 01223 464420 email:

Notes for editors

1 ) A number of UN Resolutions have been passed which aim to restrict the marketing and promotion activities of the baby feeding industry. The most significant Resolution included The International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, (the International Code 2 ) which was adopted in1981 by the World Health Assembly (the policy-setting body of the World Health Organisation) as a minimum requirement to be implemented in its entirety. The International Code is an important safeguard for health and aims to ensure that all parents - those who decide to breastfeed and those who decide to feed their babies with breastmilk substitutes - receive unbiased and appropriate information.

2 Over 70 Countries now have official Government policies recommending 6 months exclusive breastfeeding (expressed either as legislation, Presidential Decree, official statement, letter or as guidance to health workers):

Africa - Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Cote d'Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome Principe, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Americas - Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Oceania - Australia, Kiribati, Micronesia and Palau.

Asia - Cambodia, India, Iran, Hong Kong, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Mongolia, Philippines, Singapore, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

Europe - Bosnia, France, Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Georgia, Germany, Netherlands and Slovakia., UK

3) This new decision by DH has the support of the Royal College of Midwives and the Health Visitors Association who are all members of the adhoc group Baby Feeding law Group UK which works for the implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant World Health Assembly Resolutions into legislation in the UK. BFLG Member Organisations : association of breastfeeding mothers,, association for improvements in the maternity services, association of radical midwives, baby milk action, (secretariat) breastfeeding network, british dietetic association, food commission,community practitioners and health visitors’association, lactation consultants of great britain, la leche league (gb), maternity alliance, midwives information and resource service, national childbirth trust, royal college of midwives, royal college of nursing, royal college of paediatrics and child health, unicef uk baby friendly initiative.

4) The Global market for baby milks : US$ 10.9billion (ref Euromarket 2001) and growing by 12% each year. The extra sales of complementary foods resulting from labelling products for use from 4 months of age rather than 6 months are estimated to be worth US$1 billion annually.

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