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China to Boost Breast-Feeding Rates by 50 Percent—in the Next 7 Years

Chinese government aims to boost breastfeeding rates by 50%.
Photograph by Getty Images/iStockphoto

Looks like breast-feeding is about to get a major image makeover in China...

Believe it or not, only 28 percent of Chinese infants under 6 months currently breast-feed exclusively. Considering the global average is about 40 percent (according to UNICEF), those stats are pretty surprising. But apparently the Chinese government is working on fixing all of that—by launching an ambitious plan that aims to get breast-feeding rates up to 50 percent by 2020.

The "rebranding" of breast-feeding is all part of an effort to increase awareness about its health benefits; but experts hope it will also help lower the rising rate of childhood obesity in China, which some say is linked to formula use.

That 50 percent goal may sound like a bit of a reach; but official initiatives have already been launched to kick things off. For starters, UNICEF and the government's National Center for Women's and Children's Health have teamed up to add public breast-feeding rooms, hoping to lift some of the stigma surrounding it. And that's a good place to start, considering one of the biggest breast-feeding hurdles for Chinese moms is that there's simply no place to actually do it outside of the home.

But reversing the overall anti-breast-feeding trend won't be easy. For one, it will call on a new generation of mothers to go against what most of their own mothers chose for them. And it will no doubt take some time to spread a new, more powerful message, which UNICEF says will focus on breast milk being nutritionally safe, universally available, and free.

Plus, it's easier said than done to go up against a billion-dollar industry. After all, the popularity of baby formula has really been going strong in China since the 1970s, when it first hit the market. Yang Xiaoping, a 24-year veteran of China's Tiantan Hospital's maternity ward, told the Associated Press that part of formula's sweeping success has been due to some pretty impressive marketing put behind it. The strategy? It's all about heavy advertisement, marketing free samples in hospitals (despite being illegal), and even contacting mothers directly at home. This, all before mothers can even take a stab at trying to breast-feed. As a result, Xiaoping says that Chinese mothers have been trained to think formula is more nutritious.

"They are bombarded with baby formula ads, and the mothers want the best for their children," says Yang.

For the first time in decades, though, the breast-feeding movement may stand a real chance of making a comeback, after a recent national scare over tainted baby formula caused some major backlash this month.

In an email late last week to the Associated Press, Dr. Robert Scherpbier, the chief of health and nutrition for UNICEF China, wrote, "The risks of formula feeding are increasingly clear to the Chinese public. How many infant formula crises do we still need to convince mothers and policy makers that breast is best?"

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