Mother's milk the best formula for health

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 February, 2011, 12:00am

There is nothing more natural than a mother feeding her baby with her own milk, yet Hong Kong has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world.

From parents' anger over the recent milk powder shortage, it is clear that infant formula is still viewed as a necessity for babies. Why have we grown so reliant on it?

Few people in Hong Kong of child-bearing age were breastfed themselves. In the 1960s and 1970s, formula was seen as a Western scientific wonder and breastfeeding was only for the poor. The mentality has stuck. Yes, breastfeeding is one of those nice-to-do things, theoretically. But, in reality, who has the time and patience?

From the findings of a 2009 public hospital survey here, the rate of exclusive breastfeeding is low and the duration is short. The percentage of babies receiving any breast milk fell from 63 per cent after the first month to 26.9 per cent after six months.

As any mother who has breastfed will tell you, it is not an easy job. It requires determination and perseverance. Yet when new mothers have problems, families and even health workers convince many to resort to milk powder.

Milk powder is pushed on mothers from every direction. Promotion ladies hover outside hospitals, preying on pregnant mothers like vultures, and thrusting samples into their hands. Staff in postnatal wards solicit requests from new mothers for a 'milk powder top-up', as if it is natural that no baby should be getting enough food from their mother's milk.

At some private hospitals, babies are put on tight feeding schedules and kept away from their mothers, just when mothers and babies should be 'roomed in' to establish their own natural feeding patterns.

And, of course, this is not helped by the short maternity leave. Women in Hong Kong only have 10 weeks off, giving them only about two months to breastfeed their newborns. With long working hours and a lack of facilities for nursing mothers at offices, many women feel they must wean before they get back to work. This is against the World Health Organisation's recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life.

Even on the mainland, new mothers have four months of paid maternity leave and two hours in nursing breaks during workdays. Yet, here in Hong Kong, there is still no legislation planned for a longer maternity leave to facilitate breastfeeding.

The government must not take the short-sighted view that longer maternity leave is unfavourable to business. The benefits of breastfeeding to both the infant and the mother are internationally recognised. Breastfeeding protects against childhood infectious diseases, and is associated with long-term benefits in areas such as cardiovascular risk factors, intellectual capacity and allergies.

And we must recognise the importance of early mother-child emotional bonding.

Hong Kong people tend to be astute financial investors, but it is time for us to think about investing in the emotional and physical well-being of our next generation.

Verna Yu is a senior writer at the Post