Breastfeeding is still the gold standard

by Jennifer Bowden / 03 March, 2012
Shots of Piri Weepu bottle-feeding his daughter should have been left on the cutting-room floor.

What’s past is prologue,” said William Shakespeare; a detail that’s been lost in the recent debate about the treatment of parents who bottle-feed their infants. So what is the prologue to the bottle-feeding debate?

New Zealand’s first artificial baby food products were developed by physician and Plunket Society founder Truby King in the early 1900s, according to public health researchers Marewa Glover and Chris Cunningham in Infant Feeding Practices: A Cross-Cultural Perspective.

In 1927, the Karitane Products Society took over the factory producing these items; subsequently all profits from the sales of these baby foods funded the Plunket Society. Throughout the 20th century, infant formula manufacturers were able to market their products as having additional health benefits (when they didn’t), and were given free access to distribute samples to new mothers in birth wards who were in the throes of initiating breastfeeding.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing – we can now clearly see the conflict of interest that exists when a non-profit society that promotes breastfeeding is also selling infant formulas to survive. And though free samples of infant formula might not sound like a crime, as adults and parents we are responsible for protecting the vulnerable members in our society from the influence of an industry aiming to make a profit.

It took the World Health Organisation’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes in 1981 to halt what are ultimately unethical practices. This code requires, among other things, that all information and educational materials – whether written, audio or visual – should make clear “the benefits and superiority of breastfeeding”. And this is where the issue is black and white. Irrespective of whether an Olympic athlete says his young daughter is thriving on a mix of breast milk and infant formula, the research, summarised by the American Academy of Pediatrics, clearly shows that breastfed infants have:

  • improved resistance to illnesses such as diarrhoea, ear infections, respiratory tract infections, urinary tract infections and necrotising enterocolitis;

  • lower mortality in the first year; and

  • improved mental development. Research also suggests breastfed infants may have a lower risk of developing:

  • asthma;

  • high cholesterol;

  • diabetes;

  • childhood obesity; and

  • leukaemia, lymphoma and Hodgkin’s disease.

So, should we be celebrating, or at least allowing, images of a well-respected New Zealand athlete bottle-feeding his daughter to be broadcast nationally in a smoke-free public-health advertisement? Glover, who coincidentally is also director of the Centre for Tobacco Control Research, says the bottle-feeding segment should have been on the cutting-room floor when the smoke-free advertisement was first edited.

“One of the Health Sponsorship Council’s main strategies is to denormalise smoking – thus the opposite should be a no-brainer for them. If you show a famous and well-respected role model bottle-feeding, then that will contribute to normalising bottle feeding. We need to normalise breastfeeding.” Piri Weepu, the All Black at the centre of the debate, is of Maori origin, which is also concerning, because Maori women have one of the lowest rates of full breastfeeding in New Zealand. Developing support for breastfeeding within the whanau is the key to improving Maori breastfeeding rates, according to a 2009 report by the National Breastfeeding Advisory Committee.

Clearly, images of high-profile Maori athletes bottle-feeding their children – no matter what the medical reasons – hinder efforts to normalise breastfeeding among the wider Maori community. But enough of the politically correct rhetoric. These are the facts: just as smoking has health risks, so, too, does feeding infants formula. These include a greater risk of health and developmental problems both during infancy and later in life. The real issue is not what or how Weepu feeds his daughter, but that apparently we still have a long way to go in educating our community about how far short infant formula falls compared with the gold standard of food for infants: breast milk.

Email:, or write to “Nutrition”, c/o Listener, PO Box 90783, Victoria St West, Auckland 1142.
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