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Nothing like mother's milk

(Shanghai Daily)

08:50, August 09, 2011

Nothing matches mother's milk for nourishing healthy children, but Chinese moms face many obstacles to breast-feeding - the rush to get back to work, cultural norms and aggressive baby formula sellers.

When she hears her hungry baby wail, Zhang Shuyi is at her wits' end. Although she was confident she could breast-feed her baby properly, she now fears she doesn't have enough milk.

After giving birth to her son two years ago, 35-year-old Zhang, a doctor at the Capital Institute of Pediatrics in Beijing, has continued to practice exclusive breast-feeding in strict accordance with international standards.

"Exclusive breast-feeding" is defined as feeding an infant only breast milk for the first six months of life, then continuing to breast-feed as a supplement to increasing amounts of solid food for at least the first two years of life.

Although her son looks healthy, he is somewhat lighter and slimmer than other babies his age, which has concerned both Zhang's and her husband's parents. Older Chinese often believe that it is good for infants to be fat. Her parents have urged her to switch to formula.

Only a small proportion of Chinese mothers undertake exclusive breast-feeding. Before 2007, China's definition of exclusive breast-feeding allowed mothers to also give water, making it different from the international definition. Therefore, China lacks representative statistics about the rate of true, exclusive breast-feeding before that year.

David Hipgrave, chief of health and nutrition at UNICEF China, says that only a few areas of China have assessed exclusive breast-feeding rates before 2007. In one study in east China's Zhejiang Province, the rate of truly exclusive breast-feeding for six months was extremely low. The highest rate in rural infants was only 7 percent, whereas the rate in urban infants was below 1 percent.

But, some experts estimate that the rate stands at less than 30 percent currently.

Many studies have shown that breast milk is the most hygienic and nutritious food for infants during the first six months of life. After six months, when babies begin to eat solid food, breast-feeding should continue for up to two years and beyond because it is an important source of nutrition, experts say.

There is evidence that breast-feeding protects infants against sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), allergies, acute respiratory infections and ear infections. A WHO-led global study shows that adults who were breast-fed as infants had lower blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as a lower prevalence of obesity and diabetes.

"Although I have a lot of knowledge about breast-feeding, I still worry whether my milk is enough for my baby," Zhang says.

Zhang's husband, Liu Huan says, "I received some child-rearing training before my son was born. I know that breast milk is the best for our child, so I always encourage my wife to breast-feed our baby. Sometimes, it's very hard for her."

Zhang says that the first month after her baby was born, as well as the time she returned to work after maternity leave, were the hardest times for her to breast-feed. During the first month after her child's birth, she worried that she couldn't feed him enough. After resuming work, she became very tired, which also affected her ability to produce milk.

Zhang continued to breast-feed her baby after he reached his first birthday, a time when most Chinese mothers choose to wean their children. "Many people have criticized me. I do remember one time, this old woman saw me feeding my son and said, 'What a fortunate child.' I felt so happy to hear that - if only more people could give us encouragement," she says.

Many of the children who were born during the emergence of China's one-child policy are now parents themselves. Many undertake breast-feeding at first and they understand that mother's milk is best. But they have faced difficulties.


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