WHO highlights importance of safeguarding breastfeeding for children up to three years of age

Home > WHO highlights importance of safeguarding breastfeeding for children up to three years of age

6 December 2018

In this Information Note, the World Health Organization (WHO) highlights the importance of safeguarding breastfeeding and ending inappropriate marketing and distribution of breastmilk substitutes for children up to three years of age.

The WHO International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (the Code) is designed to protect both breastfed and formula fed babies from commercial influence by promoting evidence based, unbiased infant feeding information for all families. Whilst the Code did not initially specify an age range for products that should be considered breast-milk substitutes, in 2016 the WHO published guidance to clarify that breast-milk substitutes “should be understood to include any milks (or products that could be used to replace milk) in either liquid or powdered form, that are specifically marketed for feeding infants and young children up to the age of 3 years (including follow-up formula and growing-up milks).” This new Information Note from WHO describes the rationale for this interpretation and the importance of breastfeeding into the second year of an infant’s life.

The Note highlights that breastfeeding beyond 12 months has a profoundly positive impact on infant and maternal health:

  • Children who are not breastfed at 12-23 months of age are about twice as likely to die as those who are breastfed in the second year of life
  • Breastfeeding for more than 12 months reduces breast cancer by 26%
  • Breastfeeding longer than 12 months reduces in ovarian cancer by 37%
  • In a large study among low-income children in the United States, those breastfed for at least 12 months were 28% less likely to be overweight at four years of age than those never breastfed
  • In a meta-analysis of 17 studies conducted in seven countries, each additional month of breastfeeding reduced the risk of childhood obesity by 4%.
  • Each additional year of lifetime duration of breastfeeding is associated with a 9% protection against type 2 diabetes.

The document concludes that, “Because continued breastfeeding to two years and beyond saves lives and promotes the health of both the mother and baby, it is important that this protection include follow-up formula.”

It is important to note that the Code is not fully incorporated into UK law, which only applies to infant formula intended for babies under six months old. Find out more about the Code and UK law.

Visit the WHO website to access the full document and references.