Dear World Health Organization,
These last few months have revealed many problems with your policies and recommendations. Thousands of people around the world are mourning the deaths of their loved ones, which wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t been parroting China’s shocking lies about the coronavirus. No official words of apology would ever make up for lost lives.
WHO lifestyle policy recommendations – such as the prohibition of the marketing of breast milk substitutes — are only adding to the mental and economic pressures with which new moms are grappling.
In your latest report, released together with UNICEF and the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), you urge countries to ban the promotion of breast milk substitutes, including advertising and distribution of free samples.
While the WHO deserves praise for drawing attention to the important issue of breastfeeding, pressuring women to continue to breastfeed during the COVID-19 pandemic while at the same time denying them information on alternatives is outrageous.
In fact, new moms needed this information more than ever during the pandemic. With the WHO’s outstanding level of expertise, WHO experts must be aware that high levels of stress in breastfeeding moms can lead to a difficult let-down reflex and to a decrease in breast milk supply.
Women may also suffer from an underlying condition such as HIV, tuberculosis, and certain cancers that makes breastfeeding difficult or impossible.
Even healthy mothers, under the best of circumstances, have trouble breastfeeding. These moms too have felt extreme stress during the pandemic, making it, for some, nearly impossible.
Breastfeeding isn’t only about nutrition; it also helps establish a life-long connection between mother and child. A mothers’ mental health is projected on their children. What can an emotionally exhausted mother offer a baby other than her anxiety? Sometimes breastfeeding simply isn’t worth it, and moms need alternatives.
Shaming these moms for choosing breast milk substitutes is disgraceful. Women who want to breastfeed should be free to do so. Women, who – for either medical or personal reasons – prefer or need breast milk substitutes, should be able to access information about those products and make an informed choice, without feeling shame.
The WHO needs to recognize that a women’s well-being matters as much as their baby’s.
The WHO might have the noblest of motives, but moms need information more than unwelcome advice. Denying new moms information about breast milk substitutes leaves them vulnerable to unreliable—even dangerous—information and may even lead some to purchase products on the unregulated black market.
The damage from coronavirus is impossible to reverse, but the WHO can help alleviate some of the suffering by ensuring mothers – and all consumers — have the information necessary to choose products that are best for themselves and their babies.
Maria Chaplia is the European Affairs Associate at the Consumer Choice Center.