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Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Breast is Best

These children will naturally learn the purpose of breasts as being for feeding the baby

As Hong Kong restricts the purchase of baby formula by visitors, many new mothers in China are turning to breastfeeding.
WHEN the Hong Kong authorities decided to restrict the amount of baby formula (two cans or about 1.8kg) that visitors can take out of the city, that regulation sent ripples of indignation throughout the Chinese mainland, and many cried foul, and even more said the new rule was merciless.

The outcry is the result of a long chain of events, which started after melamine was found in milk powder produced on the mainland. This safety scandal made parents look abroad for safer infant formula for their babies, and Hong Kong became an important source.

Scores of buyers cleared the shelves in Hong Kong, resulting in a flood of protests from Hong Kong parents, who had suddenly found their milk supplies drying up.

One of the better side effects of this confidence crisis is that more new mothers in China are choosing to breastfeed their babies.

“Nothing is better than mother’s milk,” says Liu Zhaoqiu, a children’s healthcare specialist with the No.1 Hospital of Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Breast milk is rich in antibodies and nutrients, and provides the child with a head start in health, growth and development. Breastfeeding also strengthens the bond between mother and child, which is good for the children’s psychological development, Liu underlines.

Excluding unusual cases, such as mothers with infectious diseases and severe heart disease, Liu recommends breastfeeding for the first six months, after which mother’s milk should be complemented with other foods up to two years and later.

“I breastfeed my daughter, and I’m confident that breastfeeding is the best and safest food for her,” says Yang Yang, 38, a mother of a nine-month-old girl in Beijing. She is a consultant who works from home and did not realise the benefits of breastfeeding at first.

After her baby was born, she fed the infant with an imported baby formula that was sent to her by relatives living abroad.

Later, after she and her husband found out that breastfeeding was better than any formula, she made the switch.

“Parents always want to give their children the best,” Yang says. “Since we know breast milk is better than formula, there is no reason not to breastfeed.”

She feels fortunate that her hours at work are flexible, and she has a lot of time to stay home with her daughter. Her daughter is healthier and stronger than many other infants she knows, Yang says.

Currently, there are many breastfeeding support groups online, Yang says, which new mothers can go to for advice.

Han Tongyan, a paediatric healthcare specialist with the No.3 Hospital of Peking University, has noticed the changes in attitude towards breastfeeding.

Han became a paediatrician in 1998. At that time, infant formula was new to the Chinese, and many scrimped and saved to buy formula for their children, because they thought it was better than breast milk.

After safety scandals repeatedly hit both local and imported foreign sources of milk powder in 2008, many parents were forced to reconsider the situation. Some changed tack and got friends and relatives abroad to start a supply chain. Others used online resources to bring in the imported milk powder.

And they also became more aware that nothing is safer, or better, for the child than mother’s milk – a message that has been promoted through government campaigns and better support groups online, Han observes.

“Quite a few mothers I know quit their jobs so they can breastfeed their children better. This would have been unimaginable in the past,” Han says.

Liu Qidi, 27, a mother to an eight-month-old boy in Wuhan, Hubei province, manages to breastfeed her boy against all odds.

During the first two months after a caesarian delivery, she did not produce enough breast milk, and had to resort to supplemented feeding. In spite of the difficulty, she resisted pressure from her mother-in-law, who tried to persuade her to use infant formula.

When her child was two months old, Liu was finally able to feed him exclusively on breast milk. She also resigned from her job as operation director assistant in a large international company, so she could breastfeed her son undistracted.

“It was a hard choice. But nothing is more important than my son,” Liu says. “The job kept me too busy and there was a lot of overtime. If I worked, I couldn’t have continued to breastfeed my son.”

Liu now works at her mother’s cosmetics distributing company, and is able to nurse her child anytime she wishes.

But not every breastfeeding mother has that luxury.

One of Liu’s cousins, for instance, has to continue working even while breastfeeding. As a result of the pressure from work, the mother could not produce enough milk and has to buy milk formula from abroad.

“For babies under four months, they can only survive on milk. If mother’s milk is not available, then milk formula is next best,” says Liu Zhaoqiu, the healthcare specialist.

At the bottom line, parents suffer such concern about their babies’ diet because they need to have the confidence that what they feed their children is safe and uncontaminated.

As Liu sums up, “the authorities must adopt efficient quality control measures to make sure formula in the market is safe. This will re-establish confidence”.

Perhaps then, parents would not have to risk breaking the law by buying milk from Hong Kong.

By LIU ZHIHUA – China Daily/Asia News Network

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