Private hospitals may pursue Unicef programme for breastfeeding

Four facilities may pursue a Unicef recognition that uses 10 measures to promote the practice

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 6:01am

The city may get its first private hospitals with a Unicef "baby-friendly" accreditation in a few years, after they take steps to steer new mothers away from feeding their infants milk formula, the UN agency said yesterday.

Unicef's Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (Hong Kong Association) is all about promoting breastfeeding and dissuading mothers from using formula.

"Receiving free infant formula samples should be banned entirely because it is a kind of marketing activity to discourage breastfeeding," said Dr Patricia Ip Lai-sheung, chairwoman of the Unicef initiative.

At least four private hospitals are reportedly expressing an interest in applying for the recognition, which requires that they follow 10 measures to promote breastfeeding.

One is to stop accepting or giving away free milk formula samples, starting this year. Free samples were banned in the public sector in 2010.

In public hospitals, the number of mothers who breastfeed their babies has more than doubled since the government banned distribution of free formula samples, according to a survey by the University of Hong Kong's school of nursing.

It found that in 2006/07, 17.1 per cent of mothers fed their babies only breastmilk during their 48-hour stay in hospital after birth. That climbed sharply to 41.5 per cent this year, after the ban. The duration of breastfeeding has also risen, to 11 weeks from eight.

But infant-formula makers are still promoting their product, the HKU survey found. Half of the 1,230 mothers they interviewed this year said they had been approached by manufacturers outside the hospitals.

Such marketing activities and advertising will be discouraged by the government's upcoming voluntary code on baby food substitutes, covering the first 36 months of babies' lives. The deadline for the public consultation is December 31.

Ip said the code would create a positive environment for promoting breastfeeding. "The advertisement of infant formulas brands are a major obstacle. By removing it, I believe more Hong Kong mothers will have the correct knowledge about breastfeeding", she said.

She emphasised that breast milk was the best source of nutrients for infants according to the World Health Organisation, and urged mothers not to be fooled by advertisement on infant formulas, which exaggerated their nutrient benefit.

The baby-friendly code will also require hospitals to set up policies to help mothers breastfeed their babies, provide training to medical staff and mothers, and establish assisting facilities.

Many developed countries already have "baby-friendly" hospitals under Unicef.