Metro

Why the US should have supported global breastfeeding initiative

The United States delegation tried to water down a resolution encouraging breastfeeding, shocking officials at the World Health Assembly in Geneva who had expected the measure to pass with ease, the New York Times reported Sunday.

US officials wanted to weaken the language of the resolution, which stated that breast milk is healthiest for children and that countries should try to stop infant formula manufacturers from distributing misleading marketing messages.

The retail value of the global baby food and infant formula market reached $50 billion last year, and it’s projected to climb to $69 billion by 2023, according to a recent study from market research firm IMARC Group.

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Dr. Barbara L. Philipp, medical director of the Boston Medical Center’s MotherBaby Unit, said that the US opposition to the resolution placed corporations’ profits over the health of mothers and babies. She noted that breastfeeding advocates have limited resources compared with formula manufacturers.

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About 80 percent of women begin breastfeeding their babies at birth, according to the Center for Disease Control’s 2016 Breastfeeding Report Card. In Massachusetts, Philipp noted, that number is higher, about 87 percent.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months, followed by continued breastfeeding as other foods are introduced, for up to a year or longer, depending on the wishes of the mother and child. The CDC found that only about half of all babies are still being breastfed at six months.

Philipp outlined a few of the primary health benefits of breastfeeding, for both mothers and their babies.

Breastfed babies have lower risks of several illnesses, including ear infections, obesity, sudden infant death syndrome, certain infections, and leukemia, Philipp said. The hormones and antibodies in breast milk help build up the baby’s immune system. A 2013 study from the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet projected that universal breastfeeding would prevent 800,000 child deaths a year globally.

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Mothers who don’t breastfeed are at greater risk for disease, Philipp said, including breast cancer, ovarian cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. A 2017 study from the Journal of the American Heart Association found that effect of breastfeeding on a woman’s risk of heart disease was cumulative. Overall, women in the study who breastfed reduced their risk by 9 percent, but women who breastfed more than one child reduced their risk by 18 percent.

Breast milk can change to meet a child’s needs. It is a “dynamic and changing product,” Philipp said, that changes depending on the time of day or the age of the baby and even changes from the beginning to the end of the feed. The mother’s environment can also affect the milk’s composition, she said. Breast milk can produce antibodies that combat the bacteria specifically present in that environment.

In some instances, including rare cases when infants are unable to tolerate milk or the mother has taken illicit drugs or certain medications, breastfeeding is not recommended. Some mothers, she added, are not able to breastfeed or don’t choose to do so. In those situations, Philipp said, mothers and babies need a safe alternative.

Emily Williams can be reached at emily.williams@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.