Elisabeth Sterkin is the National Director of INFACT (Infant Feeding Action Coalition). Elisabeth talks to True Feminism about the need to protect and promote breastfeeding.
SD: What is INFACT?
ES: The Infant Feeding Action Coalition (INFACT) Canada is a national non-profit, non-governmental organization working to improve the health and well-being of women, infants, and young children through the promotion, protection and support of breastfeeding. INFACT Canada was the proud recipient of the Right Livelihood Award presented in the Swedish parliament in 1998 for its work in the support of breastfeeding through the implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes.
Some of INFACT Canada’s core projects and initiatives include:
1. Training of health care workers, social support workers on the supports to enable women to breastfeed.
2. Spearheading Canada’s World Breastfeeding Week activities.
3. Production of resources for health and community support providers to support promote and protect breastfeeding.
4. Providing information on maternal rights to pregnant women and new mothers. Providing support when they encounter discrimination and addressing the public obligation to honour women’s rights.
5. Monitor and reduce commercial pressures to dissuade mothers from breastfeeding and working to implement the WHO International Code of Marketing of Breast milk Substitutes.
6. Internationally INFACT Canada is the IBFAN representative for North America and works with UN agencies – ILO – maternal workplace rights; the WHO – breastfeeding protection and maternal health; UNICEF – maternal and child health. IBFAN works to implement UN instruments that protect women’s and children’s health – the Convention on the Rights of the Child; The Convention on the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women; the ILO – maternity protection;
7. INFACT Canada promotes the International Boycott of Nestle, the world’s largest manufacturer and distributor of infant formula and baby foods and a leader in violating the World Health Organization International Code and World Health Assembly Resolutions.
SD: What are the benefits of Breastfeeding?
ES: Breastfeeding should be seen as the normal continuum of pregnancy and birthing and hence is not special or different, but the way infant and young children are nurtured. Therefore to those working in the breastfeeding community, we speak of the importance of breastfeeding for children and their mothers rather than the benefits of breastfeeding. The term benefits of breastfeeding also legitimizes formula feeding as the alternative to breastfeeding and the marketing of artificial feeding products suggests that it is a choice mothers/parents make between two options. The aggressive advertising by the infant formula companies is also intended to normalize formula feeding.
SD: What are the risks of infant formulas?
ES: For Infants and Children the risks are:
Increased risk of asthma. Increased risk of allergy. Reduced cognitive development. Increased risk of acute respiratory disease. Increased altered occlusion. Increased risk for infection from contaminated formula. Increased risk of nutrient deficiency. Increased risk of childhood cancer. Increased risk of chronic disease. Increased risk of diabetes. Increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Increased risk of obesity. Increased risk of gastrointestinal infections. Increased risk of mortality. Increased risk of otitis media and ear infections. Increased risk of side effects of environmental contaminants.
ES: For Mothers the risks are:
Increased risk of breast cancer. Increased risk of overweight. Increased risk of ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer. Increased risk of osteoporosis. Reduced natural child spacing. Increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Increased stress and anxiety. Increased risk of maternal diabetes.
SD: What about working mothers or mothers who are sick and can’t breastfeed their babies?
ES: Canada has a partially paid maternity leave of 12 months for many working mothers and this an important support to enable mothers to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and to continue breastfeeding to two years and beyond as recommended by Health Canada, the WHO and the Can Ped Society. Additionally when a breastfeeding mother goes back to work, her employer must make reasonable accommodation to her lactation needs i.e. provide breaks, refrigeration and space for pumping her breast milk during working hours.
SD: What is pregnancy discrimination?
ES: To deny full access to all society has to offer because a woman is pregnant. Discrimination based on gender (against a pregnant woman or a lactating mother and her baby) is prohibited by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and enforced through the Human Rights Codes in the Provinces and territories.
SD: We have fashion magazines where women’s breasts are exposed, but people find breastfeeding in public offensive. Why do you think this attitude exists?
ES : I think this is a limited number of people who find the sight of breastfeeding offensive. Now that more and more mothers are breastfeeding, it is becoming more visible. There is an unfortunate part of the population that seems to blur nurturing breasts with sexual breasts and are unable to understand the duality of breasts and unable understand that breastfeeding is a woman’s reproductive right.
Of course the use of women’s breast to sell virtually everything is influencing how breasts are perceived. Women need to reclaim how their breasts are portrayed – yes of course we are sexual and we are also nurturing.
SD: How can individuals help create awareness about this issue?
ES: Some suggestions:
Advocate for women’s rights to breastfeed without interference
a) commercial interference - using free samples, misleading adverts, bogus claims, the distribution through the health care system etc. Health Canada must be far more aggressive about protecting the rights of mother and children to breastfeeding with out all the interference by the formula and bottle companies.
b) advocate for the Baby-Friendly Initiative in hospitals, community health units/centres, communities, breastfeeding friendly birthing practices, past partum support, community peer support.
c) Educate about the risks of formula feeding to all – in schools, prenatal classes, new mothers and all of society to ensure that breastfeeding is valued as important and the norm for feeding children.
d) Teachers and educators: training in all areas of the educational system about the importance of breastfeeding and how mothers and babies can be supported by society.
e) The media can highlight the research about the risks of formula feeding and the importance of breastfeeding when new research becomes available or when breastfeeding issues appear such as discrimination against breastfeeding mothers and babies.
SD: What is boycott Nestle?
ES: Nestle is one of the world’s largest producer and marketer of infant formula. Nestle is considered to be the trend setter in how these products are marketed. The company flagrantly violates the International Code and infant and young child nutrition resolutions of the World Health Assembly, seriously contributing to the 1.3 million death annually related to non or insufficient breastfeeding. Though monitoring reports show systematic global violations of the International Code by Nestle, they continue to refuse to abide by the marketing recommendations of the WHO, putting infant, young children and their mothers at risk.