Hong Kong authorities missed an ideal opportunity to promote the benefits of breastfeeding when fears of a shortage of milk formula arose in March because of a ban on imports from Japan following its nuclear crisis, a nutrition expert said.
'It was an excellent opportunity to tell women to stop relying on milk formulas,' Dr Luca Tommaso Cavalli-Sforza said. 'In fact, they do not need these products for the whole course of raising their children.'
The rate of breastfeeding in Hong Kong is growing, but it is still behind some of its Asian neighbours. About 77 per cent of new mothers try breastfeeding, a sharp increase from 50 per cent in 1997, the latest Department of Health figures show. But only 14 per cent continue breastfeeding for six months or more. That contrasts sharply with the situation in Cambodia, where 97 per cent of women try breastfeeding and 73.5 per cent continue for six months or more.
Cavalli, the World Health Organisation's adviser on nutrition in the Western Pacific, said 77 per cent of new mothers trying breastfeeding was not a bad performance for Hong Kong, where the practice had never been common. But to ensure more continued the habit for the long term, at least 95-99 per cent of women should have tried breastfeeding by the time they left hospital, he said.
The WHO recommends that all children be breastfed for six months to two years, and scientific studies suggest breastfed children grow up to be healthier and stronger adults.
'When children are malnourished before the age of two, they will stay malnourished for the rest of their lives,' Cavalli said.
The government should take more creative and innovative approaches to encourage breastfeeding, he said. For example, given the appearance-consciousness of Hong Kong women, it should press the message that breastfeeding helps in slimming. 'Mothers burn more calories because they expend more energy during breastfeeding,' he said.
However, many Hong Kong mothers have full-time jobs and find it difficult to breastfeed during work hours, surveys have found. Cavalli said employers should understand that facilitating breastfeeding could actually enhance the productivity of female employees.
'Children who are breastfed are less likely to be sick,' he said. 'Mothers would not need to take leave so often to care for them at home.'
Hong Kong should learn from its neighbours in promoting breastfeeding, Cavalli said. He cited the Philippines, which had a certification system for mother-friendly workplaces. Criteria for granting such certificates to employers included: provision of flexible working hours; longer maternity leave; and breastfeeding rooms in offices. 'If we display a plaque at offices declaring them to be mother-friendly, it is a good encouragement for other companies to be socially responsible,' he said. Also, malls, restaurants and other public spaces should have breastfeeding rooms to make life easier for mothers.
Dr Ou Kevanna, a Cambodian health bureaucrat, said Hong Kong should follow Phnom Penh's example of launching large-scale media campaigns spreading the benefits of breastfeeding. His government had planted messages in popular soap operas, concerts and comedy performances, the national nutrition manager at the Ministry of Health said.
It was important to get mothers to try breastfeeding early, Ou Kevanna said. Last year, nearly nine out of 10 Cambodian mothers tried breastfeeding within a day of giving birth.
The Cambodian government also trained volunteers to become breastfeeding counsellors in rural areas. Some 36 per cent of villages were now baby-friendly, meaning they had established support networks to help mothers breastfeed their children.
Because of these intensive measures, he said, the six-month breastfeeding rate in the country had jumped from 11.4 per cent in 2000 to 73.5 per cent last year.
And there was proof that the children of Cambodia were getting healthier. Compared to 2001, the mortality rate of children under five last year had halved.
Cavalli said that given its severe nursing shortage, Hong Kong should learn from Cambodia. 'Social workers or previous breastfeeders could easily be trained as counsellors.'
Percentage of new Hong Kong mothers who try breastfeeding
- But only 14 per cent continue breastfeeding for six months or more