Breast is Best

'At no time in history has such a rapid change in human behaviour been recorded as is the case with the recent decline in breast feeding in developing countries' argues Dr. G.J. Ebrahim in his book Breast feeding: the biological option. While Western mothers are being encouraged to go back to nature, Third World babies must still be satisfied with the cold comfort of glass and rubber.

Back in 1973, Dr. Ebrahim and Dr. David Morley of the Institute of Child Health in London drew the attention of the New Internationalist to the baby­killing potential in every tin of powdered milk. They reported then that children were dying from infection from un­hygienic bottles, and from malnutrition because mothers were over-diluting the powder to make it go further.

The campaign against misleading promotion and improper use of powdered milk goes on. But now there is evidence that, even if powdered baby milks are used according to manufacturer's instructions, bottle fed babies still face only half-understood hazards to their future development. This is because no amount of 'adjusting' can turn cow's milk into breast milk. Though, to give them their due, baby food manufacturers have been trying to dojust that forthirty years.

In the attempt to 'humanise' cow's milk, the milk powder producers have taken all the cow out, but put none of the human back in. Dr. Ebrahim relates the evolution of the current baby-killer recipe as follows:

Take good whole cow's milk, remove the cream and butter (you can get a good price for them), replace cream and butter with vegetable oil (cheaper than cream), remove half of the curds to make cheese, replace the curds with extra whey (biproduct of the cheesemaking process - its only other use is for feeding pigs), remove minerals from extra whey (they cause metabolic imbalance in children), add sugar until mixture contains more sugar than milk - stir thoroughly and sell at high price to poor women and international aid agencies.

With this unnatural mixture as their only food from the day they are born, infants not surprisingly show differences in the constituents of their body tissue. The ratio of fats in their cells comes to resemble that of the fats in the milk they are fed. And fat is a vital part of the developing nervous system, as well as being an important 'trigger' for the enzymes forming the basis of an infant's digestive and hormonal system. Research has yet to discover what happens when the wrong 'triggers' are pressed or when the nervous system is lubricated with sunflower oil rather than butter.

Meanwhile the economic costs con­tinue to mount. Dr. Ebrahim calculates that the decline in breast feeding in Chile between 1951 and 1970 cost $18.86 million in imported powdered milk - and wasted 78.6 thousand tons of a country's most valuable and undervalued natural resource - breast milk.

But the news is not all bad. In August 1979 a Malaysian hospital began a campaign to encourage breastfeeding, and by May this year the percentage of bottle-feeders had dropped from 50 to 10 per cent. The new Nicaraguan govern­ment has also begun carrying the 'Breast is Best' placard, and politicians in Peru are insisting that baby foods carry health warnings on the packets.

New Internationalist issue 092 magazine cover This article is from the October 1980 issue of New Internationalist.
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