U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent comments on breastfeeding have not only sparked backlash from the World Health Assembly, politicians, and mothers but has even prompted Professor Sally Kendall of the University of Kent to speak out.
Donald Trump is not a name who’s prominence in news articles will surprise many. An old joke on Mock the Week references such a tendency, when Ivo Graham proclaims: “We are yet to hear President Trump’s view on the matter”.
However, whilst most his controversies remain largely political, one controversy to have hit the Presidency challenges not only the standard norm, but established scientific knowledge regarding breastfeeding.
For context, on July 8th, the New York Times published an article which reported that USA threaten to withdraw support for “third world” countries over a breastfeeding bill in the World Health Assembly (WHA).
The tweet that started the debate, and consequent response from Professor Sally Kendall.
The bill in question was reported to be controversial by the Trump administration for including a passage which stated that governments should “protect, promote and support breast-feeding”.
Consequently, and perhaps unsurprisingly, President Trump retaliated and rebuked the NYT’s report through Twitter, claiming that the “U.S. strongly supports breast feeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula”. The newspaper denied the claims of inaccuracy the same day.
After the initial debate over Twitter, Professor Sally Kendall first gave her opinion on the situation to University of Kent News to undermine Trump’s position.
With the publicity such a debate can generate, awareness of the subject should be naturally encouraged, so I reached out to the Professor to help engage students in the conversation.
As an example of why breastfeeding is still a prominent issue in the UK, only 34% of babies receive any breast milk at 6 months, whereas this rises to 49% in the USA and 71% in Norway.
Furthermore, only 1% of women continue exclusive breastfeeding to 6 months as recommended by both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UK government, and 8 out of 10 women stop breastfeeding before they want to.
JI: How detrimental to the WHO cause could Donald Trump’s comments potentially become? Could it, for example, see a decline in mothers breastfeeding?
Professor Kendall: Potentially comments like this from a world leader could influence mothers to feel it OK to use formula and to give up breastfeeding, especially if they don’t have support around them. But more importantly, his comments are like wind to the fire of the formula milk industry as he says many mothers need formula because of malnutrition and poverty.
This gives the big formula milk company’s like Nestle and Danone the fuel they need to market their products in developing countries. Countries where babies are dying every day from diarrhoea and malnutrition because of untreated water and poor facilities to prepare formula milk. Breast milk would protect 800,000 babies every year from early death.
JI: Is it morally justified for the President of the United States, to be making comments that go against established scientific knowledge?
Professor Kendall: Mr Trump has a right to speak his mind, but as a world leader he has a moral duty not to speak without consulting the evidence properly and to use language that goes against International Code for the marketing of infant milk formula, which is not, in my opinion, morally justifiable as it misleads the public. And leads to the culture that Hollie is speaking about.
JI: Is there any scientific basis that instant formula milk could provide the same benefits as breastfeeding? (except for exceptional cases such as a mother not being able to produce milk etc.)
Professor Kendall: All the big formula milk companies make claims that whilst “breast is best” the formula they provide is as close to human milk as it can be.
Nutritionally formula can provide calories, proteins, fats and vitamins. But in the end it is dried cows milk and cannot provide the essential immunoglobulins that human milks contains to protect babies from infections and allergies.
Increasingly we are understanding more the science around the content of human milk that contributes to its protective factors, for example the good bacteria in human milk and breast skin that help to create the microbiome in the baby’s gut that will protect against disease. Formula milk can’t do that. This is one of the reasons why donor human milk is so valuable for very sick or pre-term babies whose mother are not able to produce their own milk.
For further information on the topic, Professor Kendall also suggests reading UNICEF’S Baby Friendly Initiative website that gives further updates and statistics on the matter: