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Bottle-feeding: Is there anything positive about it?


Provocative rhetorical question but, unfortunately, that reflects the state of this important debate over the years. Let’s look at some of the facts, shall we. In Britain, in August 2007, the Department of Health announced that it was piloting the baby growth charts recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) with a possible aim of these replacing the charts that have been in use over the last two decades. So, what is the drive behind this?


There has been a clamour for sometime from many nutritional experts that the existing charts were fuelling infant over-feeding. This usually affected those mothers who were breast-feeding. When it appeared that the infant was falling behind in the expected weight on the charts, there was pressure for the mother to supplement the breast milk with formula milk or in some cases, to abandon breast-feeding altogether.


The WHO growth charts are based on breast-fed infants and therefore the growth curve is gentler and regarded by many experts as more ‘natural’ and representative.


Infant formula or artificial feeding is known to be more calorie-rich and therefore more prone to lead to overweight infants. However, its main weakness, which is impossible to overcome, is the absence of passive immunity components (antibodies) passed from mother to baby via breast milk.  There are other issues that surround bottle-feeding which are dealt with in more detail in our section on breast-feeding.


Rates of breast-feeding in the western world differ greatly from country to country. By 6 months, over 75% of mothers will still be breast-feeding in Norway. The rate is 9% in Italy. Other countries fall somewhere in between.



Norway’s apparent success in this area came after the authorities there put in place social policies that are conducive to it.

Among other things, new mothers are entitled to 42 weeks of maternity leave with full pay. Also those returning to work are entitled to up to 90 minutes absence for breast-feeding. This could be going home to the baby or having the baby brought to the work-place where this is usually facilitated.


Overweight babies, overweight adults

Anything that promotes excessive weight gain at any stage in life should be a cause for major concern. This is more so when dealing with young children who would not have a say in what they are fed but who will have to live with the consequences.


In the UK (total population: 60 million), over 1 million children under 16 are known to be obese. This is double the number just 10 years ago. The vast majority of these will be obese adults. The price that the individual and society in general pays for this is very high. It is difficult to know exactly in what proportion  the problem starts with excessive bottle-feeding during infancy but with the rate of breast-feeding at less than 1 in 4 at 6 months, it is likely to be substantial. Unfortunately, the artificial formula is, in many cases, followed by poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle in childhood where the most exercise a child gets is tapping the keyboard for hours on end.


Breast-feeding: Can it work?

The superiority of breast milk for the human child is not in question. It is the result of millions of years of mammalian evolution and no amount of scientific engineering can hope to even mimic that, let alone surpass it. However, for many a modern woman, breast-feeding is simply not an option because of social pressures. Many women are the principal or even the only bread-winner in the family. They need to go back to work a few weeks, even days, after delivery and circumstances are that they can’t hope to continue breast-feeding after going back to work. In such a situation, they don’t even bother to try.


Education and the Two Worlds

The story of breast-feeding patterns is a tale of education and the two worlds that make the planet Earth.


In 1990, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) made the Innocenti Declaration to protect, promote  and support breast-feeding. It called for exclusive breastfeeding for 4-6 months and to continue breast-feeding with supplementation for up to two years or beyond.


In developing countries, most rural women, who tend to be poorer than their urban cousins breast-feed. In Latin America, the duration of breast-feeding ranges from 9 months for Brazil to 20 months for Guatemala. The relatively poor of the developing world breast-feed because of a combination of factors but chief amongst those are the still firm adherence to tradition and also the economic factor that, even if they wanted to bottle-feed, they cannot afford the formula milk.


In the rich North, the opposite is true. Educated high-earners in comparison breast-feed more than low-income (usually urban) working class women. This may very well be a problem of education.


How many of those relatively poor women know that breast-feeding protects babies against glue ear, gastro-enteritis, allergies such as eczema and respiratory infections? How many of them know that by breast-feeding they are actually giving themselves added protection against development of pre-menopausal breast cancer as well as ovarian cancer?


Every mother wishes her child the best. It is a natural maternal instinct. However, a woman will not actively pursue a benefit if she does not know anything about it.


The revival of breast-feeding continues apace and this is to be applauded. To succeed, its promotion may need a more intelligent approach.

Last update: February 28, 2013


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