July 11, 2018 – A debate over breastfeeding fueled by a New York Times article on Monday centered on whether the U.S. threatened trade measures against Ecuador, which had proposed a resolution to the World Health Assembly that would prioritize breastfeeding over formula. President Trump fired back in a tweet, saying, “The U.S. strongly supports breast feeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula.”

Northwestern University professors are available to comment on the news, discuss the benefits of breastfeeding and compare this current debate to one between Nestle and breastfeeding activists in the ‘70s.

“Breastfeeding is in the economic interest of every nation,” said Sera Young, assistant professor of anthropology and global health at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences who teaches a class on the ecology of infant feeding. “It makes babies smarter and saves money. That’s the beauty behind this being what I thought was a universal line of thinking.”

Breastfeeding can be difficult for a variety of reasons, Young said, so she believes that “insuring that policy aligns with what we know is best for moms, babies and the nation is foundational to breaking down other barriers, like unpaid maternity leave and stigma.”

Thomas McDade, professor of anthropology at Weinberg and faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research who studies the long-term impact of breastfeeding on babies and families, said he was appalled by the news.

“The data are very clear and have been for more than 30 years that breastfeeding is optimal for promoting the health and development of infants,” McDade said. “It’s indefensible to push formula while undercutting efforts to promote breastfeeding globally.”

“In the United States we are fortunate to have clean drinking water and low rates of infectious disease, so the immediate consequences of formula feeding are not as dire,” McDade said. “But that’s a different story around the world, where formula may be mixed with contaminated water and where babies who aren’t breastfed are many times more likely to die of diarrhea or respiratory infection.”

Benefits of breastfeeding:

Babies who are breastfed have a much lower risk of respiratory infections and infectious diseases, which is a huge benefit for the vast majority of babies around the world, McDade said. Babies who are breastfed are less likely to develop food allergies and ear infections, and to have chronic inflammation as adults, he added.

Young said breastfed babies are much less likely to become obese later in life and be absent from school due to sickness and more likely to have better cognitive functioning than non-breastfed babies.  Mothers also reap benefits from breastfeeding, Young said, citing benefits such as weight loss, birth control and reduced risk of breast cancer and other types of reproductive cancers.

The Nestle/breastfeeding controversy

The current breastfeeding controversy reminds McDade of a similar debate between Nestle and breastfeeding activists that began in the ’70s, in which there was a broad international push to promote the use of formula as a safer, more hygienic and more scientific alternative to breastfeeding, he said.

“We’ve fought this battle before,” McDade said. “Now we’ve moved to the point where hospitals have gotten much better about promoting breastfeeding. An effort to undercut these efforts would be a big step backwards.”