Low rate of breastfeeding in China attributed to heavy marketing of infant formula

By Tingmin Koe contact

- Last updated on GMT

Only 29.2% of infants aged six months and below are purely fed with breastmilk in China. ©Getty Images
Only 29.2% of infants aged six months and below are purely fed with breastmilk in China. ©Getty Images

Related tags: Breastfeeding, Infant formula, Marketing

Only 29.2% of infants aged six months and below are exclusively breastfed in China, with the heavy marketing of infant formula found to be a key factor, a study conducted by the China Development Research Foundation has found.

The figure is lagging behind the target that the Chinese government has set. According to China’s national nutrition plan, the plan is to achieve a 50% rate of pure breastfeeding for infants aged six months and below by 2020.

This is also lower than the world’s average rate of 43%.

The World Health Organisation has even stricter recommendations, which recommends that infants should only be fed with breastmilk, and no drinking water should be included, during their first six months of life.

The study was conducted between August 2017 and January 2018. A total of 10,223 mothers with children aged one year and below took part in it.

According to the findings, most of the infants aged six months and below – one-third of them, were fed with a mix of breastmilk and other food, such as milk powder and other dairy-based food.

Another 31% were fed with breastmilk, fruit juice, and drinking water.

The remaining were fed with pure breastmilk (29.2%) and artificial feeding (6.3%).

The report also found regional differences in the way how infants were fed.

For instance, the rate of pure breastfeeding was highest in major cities at 35.6%, followed by rural areas at 28.3%.

In mid-tier cities, the rate went even lower at 23.3%.

In both mid-tier cities and rural areas, most of the infants - 35% and 36.3% respectively were fed with a mix of breastmilk, water, and/or fruit juice.

Lack of market regulations?

The report attributed the lack of market regulations on the sales of breastmilk substitutes as a key factor of low breastfeeding rate.

“Since the Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes was repealed in late 2017, our country currently lacks a holistic set of rules to regulate the sales of breastmilk substitutes. There is only a few clauses in the current Law on Maternal and Infant Healthcare and Advertising Law that is related to regulating the sales of breastmilk substitutes,”​ said the report.

The Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes which was previously in place, stated that healthcare and medical organisations are not allowed to promote or recommended breastmilk substitutes to pregnant women and young families with infants.

As the Chinese authorities beef up the quality checks on infant formula powder and implement the Food Safety Law, consumers are regaining trust in domestically produced infant formula products, which may further reduce the rate of pure breastfeeding.

In 2016, China’s infant-toddler infant formula market achieved sales of RMB$118.9bn (US$17bn). It is estimated that by year 2021, the market size will exceed RMB$170bn (US$25bn).

The report thus attributed the sales of breastmilk substitutes as a “big obstacle”​ for promotion of breastmilk feeding.

Other factors

Two other factors were also said to be the cause of low breastfeeding rate.

They are individual causes, such as the mothers’ age, weight, education level and organisational causes, including support from healthcare organisations, family, and workplace.

As much as 42.6% of the mothers said they received the recommendation to feed their infants with a mix of breastmilk and milk powder from mother-infant care centres and hospitals.

Another 32.3% received the information from internet, while 19.2% learnt it from the TV, radio and other traditional media outlets.

Statistics have shown that for mothers who had received suggestions to feed their infants with milk powder, 50.8% of them heeded the suggestion, and the rate of pure breastfeeding amongst these mothers was only 21%.

Whereas for mothers who did not receive any of such suggestions, 20% made the decision to feed their infants with milk powder, and the rate of pure breastfeeding amongst these mothers was only 32.2%.

The recommendation to feed infants with milk powder was most widespread in big cities, with 42.4% said they have received such recommendation.

In view of the present situation, the report suggested to put in place a stricter set of rules to regulate the sales of breastmilk substitutes, in hopes of “eliminating the negative influence that (the breastmilk substitute industry) has brought to breastfeeding practice, and to protect, promote, and support the creation of a better environment for breastfeeding.”

Lastly, it also called for a more supportive work environment and extend the duration of maternal leave to encourage breastfeeding. 

Related topics: Manufacturers, Nutritionals

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