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“The whole miracle of breast milk cannot be imitated”

Health experts are convinced that baby milk powder companies are using controversial marketing tricks to discourage young mothers from breastfeeding.

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“The whole miracle of breast milk cannot be imitated”

Health experts are convinced that baby milk powder companies are using controversial marketing tricks to discourage young mothers from breastfeeding. In a series of articles in the specialist journal The Lancet, they demand that this must be stopped. More support for breastfeeding mothers and an international treaty that protects against "exploitative marketing" and prohibits companies from political lobbying are needed.

According to the authors, manufacturers take advantage of mothers' insecurity to do business. They gave the impression that babies who do not sleep through the night or have colic would be better supplied with artificial baby food (formula milk) than with breast milk. Such problems could often be solved with the support of specialist staff. Breastfed babies would undoubtedly have the best start in life.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that babies should be exclusively breastfed for six months. Babies should also be given other foods after that, but they should continue to be breastfed at least until their second birthday. The professional association of paediatricians recommends breastfeeding exclusively for four to six months in Germany. "If porridge is also given from four months, the risk of food allergies forming is lower," says spokesman Jakob Maske. In countries where there is often no clean water to stir, longer breastfeeding is of course better. Maske stresses that breastfeeding doesn't work for all mothers and babies. Even the free decision not to breastfeed is not condemned.

"The whole miracle of breast milk cannot be imitated," said Mathilde Kersting, head of the research department for child nutrition at the University of Bochum. She was not involved in the articles. Babies could also be safely fed with formula milk. However, it is not possible to replicate the bioactive substances in breast milk that help shape the immune system.

The WHO had denounced the marketing practices of manufacturers in a report in 2022 and named global sales of around 55 billion dollars a year. Sometimes employees take part in groups for young mothers on social media. They stoked fears, touted breast milk substitutes as the solution, and offered free samples without saying they'd get paid.

The Swiss company Nestlé rejects such machinations. According to industry services, it is the largest producer of baby milk powder with a world market share of around 16 percent. "We support the WHO recommendation that babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives," the company said. It does not advertise powdered milk for babies up to six months old anywhere in the world, nor for babies up to 12 months old in 163 countries, including China, India and Indonesia.

The authors write that the 1981 WHO code on the marketing of breast milk substitutes does not work. According to this, among other things, such products should not be publicly advertised and no free samples should be distributed to mothers. However, under pressure from industry lobbyists, many governments have not implemented the code. He is injured in almost 100 countries. An EU regulation based on the WHO Code has been in force in Germany since February 2022. "We need a stricter international formula milk advertising treaty implemented by law around the world," demanded co-author David McCoy.

According to the WHO, less than half of babies worldwide are exclusively breastfed for six months. In Germany it is 13 percent, says Regina Ensenauer, head of the Institute for Child Nutrition at the Max Rubner Institute in Karlsruhe. According to the authors of the study, the milk powder industry is growing. The companies see the concern of parents for their babies as an opportunity for profiteering, wrote WHO author Nigel Rollins.

According to The Lancet, women should be given more social support when breastfeeding, for example through sufficient maternity leave. In addition, more staff must be trained to give women more support with breastfeeding problems after childbirth. This is also necessary in Germany, says Ensenauer: "Basically, breastfeeding receives far too little attention."

The magazine emphasizes that some women cannot breastfeed their babies and are dependent on formula milk. In addition, every woman can freely decide how to feed her baby. However, it must be ensured that the mothers receive correct and independent information, "free from the influence of the industry".

"Aha! Ten minutes of everyday knowledge" is WELT's knowledge podcast. Every Tuesday and Thursday we answer everyday questions from the field of science. Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Deezer, Amazon Music, among others, or directly via RSS feed.

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