BEIJING, March 10 (Xinhua) -- One in every three babies born in China has never ingested breast milk, political advisor Yang Lan said, expressing her worries about the declining rate of breastfeeding in China.
Yang, a mother of two, has submitted a proposal calling for support for breastfeeding mothers in China at this year's session of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
"There are over 16 million newborns in China every year, and only 28 percent of them were exclusively breastfed until the ideal age of six months," Yang told Xinhua in a recent interview.
According to the Ministry of Health, China's breastfeeding rate was about 67 percent in 2008, much lower than the goal of 85 percent set in the National Program of Action for Child Development in China (2001-2010).
The rate is much lower than that of Cambodia and the Republic of Korea (ROK), whose breastfeeding rates have sharply increased due to a range of concerted public health measures.
In Cambodia, the breastfeeding rate has increased from 12 percent in 2000 to over 65 percent in 2008. In the ROK, it has grown from 20 percent in 2000 to 89 percent in 2009, with the exclusive breastfeeding rate reaching 49.3 percent in 2009.
Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and continued breastfeeding until a child is two years old is recommended by WHO and UNICEF. Breastfeeding has lifelong benefits, while formula feeding leads to sub-optimal health outcomes and economic losses.
In the proposal, Yang suggested that there are a number of reasons for China's low exclusive breastfeeding rate.
"First, Chinese childbearing culture has changed over the last couple of decades," Yang said. "They may worry about their physical fitness and be afraid that breastfeeding would not support babies' nutritional and health needs."
"No other food for infants aids development and builds the immune system like human milk, and no infant formula contains the antibodies to protect infants against infection that breast milk does," she said.
International studies show that breastfed newborns are six times less likely to die from acute respiratory infection and diarrhea than non-breastfed infants. The risk of chronic diseases, which pose an increasing threat to China's population, can be more than 200 percent higher in adults who were not breastfed compared to those breastfed in infancy. Breastfed children also perform better on intelligence tests than their non-breastfed peers.
Yang said another reason for the low breastfeeding rate is illegal advertisements. "One-third of mothers receive infant formula as a gift. Some hospitals even allow infant formula companies to promote their products and distribute free samples in delivery rooms or wards."
The Chinese market is very attractive to manufacturers of breast milk substitutes. In recent years, both foreign and local baby food companies have aggressively marketed breast milk substitutes.
Statistics from the China Chamber of Commerce of Foodstuffs and Native Produce show that in the first seven months of 2011, the Chinese mainland imported 324,000 tons of milk powder, a number greater than the total for all of 2009.
China issued a government regulation in 1995 in line with the World Health Assembly's International Code on the Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes to restrict the use and promotion of all substitute products for mother's milk for infants up to six months.
"Unfortunately, businesses have just been ignoring the order and always try to mislead mothers to use baby formulas," Yang said.
Moreover, China's official maternity leave of only three months after delivery and lack of breastfeeding breaks in the workplace are a concern for working mothers.
"We should support women in paid employment outside the home to continue breastfeeding by providing them with more flexible working hours and on-site breastfeeding rooms," said Yang, who was appointed as an ambassador to UNICEF in 2010.