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China baby milk scandal highlights decline in breastfeeding

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By Juhie Bhatia

Thomson Reuters is not responsible for the content of this post – the views are the author’s alone.

Health authorities in China reported this week that nearly 53,000 children have become sick after consuming tainted infant formula. As the effects of these contaminated dairy products become more widespread, many are discussing the alternative to formula — breastfeeding.

The scandal erupted earlier this month when Sanlu, China’s top-selling infant formula manufacturer, publicly recalled its products. The baby formula was deliberately contaminated with melamine, an industrial chemical that can cause kidney problems. Since then, thousands of children have become sick and the milk powder has been blamed for the deaths of four infants. The crisis has not only raised questions about food safety, but also about why so many children are being fed formula in the first place, instead of being breastfed.

Thanks to its numerous health benefits, the World Health Organization recommends that children be breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life. However, despite a long tradition of breastfeeding in China, rates have declined as more mothers turn to milk formula. The rates of exclusive breastfeeding during an infant’s first four months decreased from around 76 percent in 1998 to 64 percent in 2004. At six months, the percentage of babies being exclusively breastfed is only 51 percent.

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