TORONTO — Canadian breastfeeding advocates say they’re stunned by an especially aggressive U.S. attempt to water down breastfeeding protections at a spring United Nations meeting.
Elisabeth Sterken of the Infant Feeding Action Coalition in Canada says she was among the official observers in Geneva when a U.S. delegation took issue with various proposals that included marketing restrictions on breast milk substitutes.
She says a prolonged debate eventually resulted in a watered-down resolution that effectively undermined long-standing efforts to support mother’s milk.
Details of the standoff were revealed in a New York Times report that said the U.S. forced Ecuador, the resolution’s sponsor, to drop the World Health Assembly proposal.
The resolution was eventually passed when Russia sponsored another version that largely resisted U.S. demands.
Sterken says she was encouraged by how strongly many countries resisted the U.S. bid, and she praised Canada for doing its part to champion breastfeeding initiatives.
“Canada was very good, I have to give credit to Canada for being there and for protecting the best in the resolution,” Sterken said Monday from The Thousand Islands.
“They also had co-sponsored the original resolution so they were very supportive of the breastfeeding protection mechanisms in the resolution so we really have to commend them for that.”
Nevertheless, Michelle Pensa Branco of the charity Safely Fed Canada called on the federal government to step up breastfeeding support in light of the controversy.
Pensa Branco, who says she was part of a group that reviewed and provided feedback on the initial UN proposal, says there’s nothing to stop Ottawa from bringing in its own version of the original resolution, which include greater limits to how breast milk substitutes are marketed.
Experts have linked breastfeeding to many health benefits because of the disease-fighting antibodies it offers babies. Additional research suggests breastfeeding offers some protection to women against breast and ovarian cancer, and osteoporosis later in life.
On Monday, a tweet from U.S. President Donald Trump said the U.S. objected to limits on the promotion of infant formula because “many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty.”
Catherine Pound, a pediatric consultant at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, found reports of the U.S. tactics “appalling” and expected the move will impact kids in developing countries where she says formula sales have increased in recent years.
Although breastfeeding rates in Canada are higher than the United States, Pound said they vary across the country with certain areas lacking in educational resources for new mothers.
Perspectives from the U.S. can also seep into Canada through social media interactions and some advertising, she added.
While Canadians generally understand the importance of breastfeeding — and benefit from extended maternity leave and public healthcare — Pound suggests we could still be influenced by outside perspectives.
“I certainly fear that we will see more and more people resorting to formula, thinking that it’s just as good,” she said.
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press