The aid group says 95 babies could be saved every hour, or around 830,00 a year, if mothers breastfed their infants.
Presenter: Richard Ewart
Speaker: Lynne Benson, International Development Programme, Save the Children
BENSON: We are not admitting defeat, the battle continues. We really believe that the power of the first hour, the power of feeding babies as soon as they're born can make such a difference. It can kick-start the immune system for babies and really enhance their survival chances, and we really believe that if mothers fully understand this and if governments understand this properly, we can't imagine why anyone would choose not to do it if they can.
EWART: So where therefore is the breakdown in communications here, that is a very powerful message but plainly the message if not getting through, but the message from the infant formula companies is?
BENSON: You're absolutely right. In the Pacific there are some countries that are doing really quite well in that first feeding. Samoa, very high, 88 per cent of mothers are succeeding in early feeding, Solomon Islands 75 per cent and so on. But they're not actually managing generally to hold this on for the first six months, which is necessary. So some information is getting through, but some things are failing, and we think it could be a combination of factors, there are four barriers. One is perhaps traditional beliefs, the second is perhaps a lack of health workers, there's a big shortage, three-and-a-half-million health workers short around the world, and we know that where a health worker is present at the birth of a baby, the mothers are twice as likely to sustain breastfeeding. There's also maternity legislation, so governments who are providing the right framework for mums, giving them the right paid maternity leave, which is a minimum 14 weeks and ideally 18 weeks paid maternity leave, and perhaps cash support for mums in the informal sector. And then the fourth barrier is as you mentioned, to do with violations of the international breast milk substitute code. And we really think that there are very few governments who are turning that code into law in their country. It's a code which is voluntary for the companies to follow. Fiji is actually the only country, well it's only one of four countries that fully enshrined the law in their country legislation, and then the countries need to enforce that law. Unfortunately we find, we've been told by mothers and by health workers that some breast milk substitute company representatives are contravening the guidance of the code, they are actually approaching mothers directly and are approaching health workers directly and health clinics directly to advertise their breast milk substitute products. So it's a large battle to be undertaken to change all of those four kind of areas.
EWART: What about the cost element in all this, because you would think that for a lot of mothers in the Pacific if they start feeding their babies on infant formula obviously they have to pay for the stuff, they don't get it free. I mean they may well get free samples as part of the promotion, but that won't continue forever, whereas of course as we know breastfeeding doesn't cost you anything. So does that factor not play a role here?
BENSON: One would certainly imagine so. I think that there are challenges there about when mothers have to return to work early and where there isn't appropriate support in the workplace with appropriate feeding rooms, that kind of thing, and that's probably why the drop-off rate is high. Look Australia itself has an early feeding rate of 96 per cent, but actually at the six month feeding rate it's dropped to 15 per cent, and that has got to be to do with the whole workplace environment. I think also the findings are that if a mother uses the supplementary feed, her own breast milk reduces, and so it's a kind of a viscious cycle then that the mother perhaps feels she can't produce enough milk, therefore she needs to use the supplementary feeding, and that just keeps it going until the mother is less able to feed. So people are stuck in that expensive rut.
EWART: And the attitude to breastfeeding still seems to be, I mean not least here in Australia, living in that dark ages. I mean it's a perfectly natural thing for a mother to want to feed her baby. It seems to me there should be no reason why she shouldn't feed the baby whenever and wherever she needs to, obviously a little bit of discretion is called for, for those people who might find the situation a little confronting in public. But in general we do still have issues with it don't we, we still have people jumping up and down saying mothers can't feed their babies in public. And you would think that this would therefore spread into the Pacific as well, where you talked about traditional police, and maybe mothers just feel embarrassed or awkward and therefore give it up?
BENSON: I think you're absolutely right, that cultural or traditional set of beliefs is a very powerful barrier for mothers. Here in Australia we actually have a law that protects mothers and so they have the right to feed in any place where they would normally be allowed to be, so in public in general. But as you say cultural attitudes even in Australia make it difficult. And in a lot of the Pacific Islands, perhaps people are suffering from those same pressures from the elders in their communities, from just general public perception. And there's also a change that people have been perhaps led to believe that it's seen as a wealth status, that if you can afford to give your child breast milk substitute then actually that is an indication that you are financially better off than others. So it can become a bit of a community status thing even.