Laws to protect breastfeeding are "inadequate in most countries"

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Increasing breastfeeding rates could save the lives of more than 800,000 children every year. Photo: UNICEF/NYHQ2014–3667/Nesbitt

The advantages of breastfeeding are scientifically proven, UN health experts say, but they warned Monday that there are still "far too many places" where heavily marketed substitutes make mothers think twice about it.

The finding comes in a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF with the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN).

According to the study's authors, increasing breastfeeding rates could save the lives of more than 800,000 children every year.

Here's Daniel Johnson in Geneva.

For UN health experts, there's no substitute to breastfeeding; mothers' milk is safe, clean and helps to protect infants against many common childhood illnesses.

But the practice faces increasing pressure from aggressive marketing tactics by producers of breast-milk substitutes – a market sector that's worth almost US $45 billion globally.

That's a problem for the World Health Organization (WHO), UN Children's Fund UNICEF and the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN).

Their review of nearly 200 countries found that only 39 of them fully respect the international code that regulates how breast-milk substitutes are promoted.

UNICEF's Marilena Viviani said that in some countries, breastfeeding rates are critically low, at just seven per cent.

"It is important first and foremost because this is the best vaccine that newborns and babies can have…. We are concerned because we know that the numbers are very low; we know that only about one out of three, or 37 per cent of children in low and middle-income countries are exclusively breastfed. And there are countries where the percentages are so low that I still am coming to terms with it myself how they can be so low…"

The UNICEF spokesperson also cited new research indicating that increasing breastfeeding to near-universal levels could save the lives of more than 820,000 children under the age of five every year.

Daniel Johnson, United Nations, Geneva.

Duration: 1'11"

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