When the World Healthy Assembly gathered in Switzerland this past spring, no one expected a resolution encouraging the health benefits of breastfeeding to generate a stormy debate. It was a simple guideline, built on years of scientific study and prior World Health Organization breastfeeding guidelines that all conclude breast milk is the best source of vital nutrients for infants and small children.
The US delegation to the to the Assembly, a body established by the U.N., unexpectedly requested a series of small but controversial changes to the wording of the breastfeeding resolution. The Trump administration now finds itself in a firestorm of its own creation, accused of putting corporate interests ahead of infant health and well-being.
The Breastfeeding Controversy
The World Health Organization breastfeeding guidelines have always been supportive of the practice for a number of reasons beneficial to both mother and infant. Initially, it was thought the resolution would pass without much debate, but then American representatives called for the removal of wording that would “promote” breastfeeding and called for restrictions on advertising artificial alternatives to breast milk.
The move is now seen as another step by the Trump administration in supporting the business community over the best interests of the American people, all in the name of protecting infant formula manufacturers. Representatives from Ecuador were set to introduce the breastfeeding resolution but claim the US threatened to withdraw vital trade and military support. Ecuador stepped down and several others countries, fearing retribution from the US, also refused to sponsor the initiative, despite supporting the consensus on the health benefits of breastfeeding in their own countries.
Ultimately, Russia stepped in and sponsored the move, with no apparent blowback from US representatives. Longstanding US allies are still shocked by what they perceive to be the use of blackmail against the long-accepted and beneficial practice of breastfeeding, a practice that saves lives, in the name of promoting corporate profits.
The Response From HHS
The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) led the charge for changes to the breastfeeding resolution but dispute the claims that they put economic pressure on Ecuador to tow the line. In fact, HHS has denied using threats during the tense negotiations on the issue of the World Health Organization breastfeeding resolution. An HHS spokesperson went so far as to denounce claims of the US government or HHS to be “anti-breastfeeding” as utterly untrue. The spokesperson went on to clarify that the US concerns were solely based on protecting mother’s rights to feed their babies as they deem necessary, whether by breastfeeding or with processed formulas.
The Health Benefits Of Breastfeeding
While the idea from HHS may be to prevent the stigmatization of mothers who opt out of breastfeeding, this is in contravention of longstanding World Health Organization breastfeeding recommendations. The WHO has long proclaimed the health benefits of breastfeeding and encourages the exclusive use of breast milk in the first 6 months of life. The WHO guidelines include not only the health benefits of breastfeeding, like providing infants with antibodies and hormones that protect against infection, but that those natural health protections could save health care systems hundreds of billions of dollars each year.
WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic advised that less than half of all infants worldwide are breastfed and that encouraging the practice would lead to an annual reduction in the infant mortality rate of 820,000. Numbers like that are hard to ignore and point to the heart of the breastfeeding controversy.