Johann Hari: There is a smart drug – it’s called breast milk
This article was written by Johann Hari for The Independent in 2008 and is transcribed below.
Imagine if today, scientists discovered a drug that could save 13 per cent of all the babies who currently die. Now imagine that drug also made your baby cleverer – and dramatically slashed her chances of developing heart disease, diabetes, leukaemia, asthma or obesity as an adult. Oh: and imagine it was free.
The “drug” exists. It is called breast milk. Yet in the developed world, we often stigmatise women who give it to their babies as “creepy”. In the developing world, we allow corporations to tug babies from their mother’s nipple, and put them on to powders that bring more profit – and more death.
I come at this from a strange perspective. My mother breastfed me until I was nearly three; she only stopped the day I wrote her a note saying I expected to be breastfed that afternoon. Today, whenever I have a success, she clutches her breasts and exclaims: “It’s thanks to these!” Whenever my bottle-fed brother and sister have a failing in life, she howls: “Think what you could have been if I’d given you the tit.” (Whenever she gets a bit too self-congratulatory, I remind her she also smoked 40 cigarettes a day. “Ach,” she says, “it’s stressful having a little bastard suckin’ at you all the time.”)
It’s the best thing you can do for your baby – without it I’d be even fatter and more disease-ridden. It’s good for you too, significantly reducing a mother’s risk of osteoporosis and cancer of the ovary. Yet my mum was made to feel like a flasher. She was glared at in public places, and asked to leave restaurants, parks and even buses. Unsurprisingly, Britain today has the worst record on breastfeeding in the developed world, after Belgium. Some 24 per cent of our babies never taste breast milk at all – and by six weeks, a majority have shifted entirely to formula.
Why? Why do we hobble our babies, and our country? Let’s rule out some of the more glib explanations. The number of women who physically can’t breastfeed with the right support is negligibly small: the World Health Organisation (WHO) puts it at 1 per cent. Nor is it because women prefer the “liberation” of the bottle. A Department of Health study found that 90 per cent of mothers who stopped feeding at six weeks said they wanted to carry on, while 40 per cent of those who stopped at six months felt the same.
The most primal reason belongs to an old, old story: women are conditioned to find their own bodies disgusting, except when they can be used to entice men. A get-your-tits-out-for-the-lads culture doesn’t want you to get your tits out for your baby: they’re for titillation, not nurture. This week, one of the Government’s best ministers – Harriet Harman – has succeeded in peeling this back, by including the legal right to breastfeed your baby in public into the new Equalities Bill.
But the biggest reason most women give for reluctantly pushing their baby on to the bottle is their need to return to work. How do we change that? For clues, look at the country where breastfeeding rates are still 90 per cent at six months: Norway. They give mothers a year off with 80 per cent pay, and give state employees breastfeeding breaks when they do come back. Yes, this costs businesses some money up front – but it saves a fortune further down the line, because you have a cleverer workforce that pays more tax and puts less pressure on the health service. If British babies were breastfed at Norwegian rates for just three months, the NHS would save £50m annually in the treatment of one disease alone – gastroenteritis.
That leaves another dark explanation for the fall-off: the role of unchecked corporate power. There is no profit to be made from a mother’s milk, so at the turn of the last century corporations tried to find a way to divert babies from nestling at their mother’s breast to Nestlé-ing at the corporate teat. They invented “baby formula” and marketed it as the classier, cleaner alternative. Cow & Gate powder was sold with a crown on the tin, bragging the Windsor children used it. (Look how that turned out.)
Gradually, in the democratic world, the corporations were restrained from making the most blatantly bogus claims about breast milk – but they keep slipping the leash. In Britain, they are banned from marketing baby formula to those younger than six months old. But instead they market “follow-up formulas” for older kids with exactly the same logo, covered with claims that it is “closer than ever to breast milk”.
This has produced a situation of startling public ignorance, where a third of mums think baby formula is “as good” or even “better” than breast milk. The poorest women know least and shift to formula first – adding another milky layer of inequality to our island. This dodgy marketing needs to be banned today.
But this breast-con swells to a 52DD scandal in the developing world. I recently visited Bangladesh, where mothers are routinely told to abandon their healthy breast milk and spend great swaths of their income on formula. I think of all the dead and dying babies I saw, and wonder how many could have been saved by a substance that was there, free, all along. WHO calculates that 1.3 million babies die every year because they are not breastfed. That’s a World Trade Centre-full a day.
Nestlé are still the most notorious offenders, controlling a near-majority of the world market. In Botswana, Nestlé has distributed a pamphlet claiming if you give your baby its “acidified” formula, “diarrhoea and its side effects are counteracted”. In reality, babies who use this rather than breast milk are more likely to contract diarrhoea – and die. Public health campaigns can hardly fight back: the corporation’s annual marketing budget is bigger than the entire annual budget of the world’s 28 poorest countries.
Nestlé says they consistently promote breastfeeding as the first, best option – but in 1999, a British Advertising Standards Authority studied the evidence and ruled they had to remove from their advertising the claim they sold their formula “ethically and responsibly”. It is only tight, binding international regulation – here, and abroad – that will tame corporations from milking the poorest with misinformation. To join the campaign to make it happen, visit www.babymilkaction.org.
And yet, for all the evidence, it still seems like an implausible story. Can a powder mix of misogyny and unregulated corporate power really induce women against their will to harm their own children? It does, baby, every day. These are still shockingly powerful forces. Now suck on that – or fight back.