Behind Milk Scandal, a Drop in Breast-Feeding

Zhang Xue, being fed at her home in Yongan, China, was hospitalized, along with her twin, after drinking tainted milk and developing kidney stones.
Zhang Xue, being fed at her home in Yongan, China, was hospitalized, along with her twin, after drinking tainted milk and developing kidney stones. (By Ng Han Guan -- Associated Press)
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By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 25, 2008

BEIJING -- Facing a classroom of anxious parents-to-be, the head nurse at Haidian Maternal and Child Health Hospital asked whether any of them had prepared milk formula. They all shook their heads.

"You guys don't dare, right?" said Li Haimiao, director of the hospital's nursing department. "Now, do any of you worry that you can't make enough milk?" Most of the mothers nodded yes.

"If you have the right attitude, you can make enough milk," Li declared, launching into a lecture last week on the benefits of breast-feeding.

Since China's tainted milk scandal broke in September, killing at least four infants and sickening 54,000 other children, fear has sent new parents back to breast-feeding or in search of more expensive imported formula.

But the larger picture behind the scandal, in which 22 dairy companies were found to have produced melamine-laced milk, is of a nation where women have increasingly chosen not to breast-feed.

In the 1970s, nearly all Chinese mothers breast-fed their infants because there was no real alternative. But in the past several decades -- amid rising incomes, the development of the dairy industry and growing urbanization -- China has embraced baby formula.

As migrant workers continue to swell China's booming cities, women face greater pressure to return to work early. Once on the job, few are given time to pump milk. And with the loosening of economic restrictions, dairy companies have launched aggressive advertising aimed at women who worry about being able to produce enough.

Many families have also been swayed by the promise of formula supplemented with important nutrients.

"There are more and more advertisements, and because people are richer than before, they have money to buy breast-feeding substitutes," said Feng Yuan, project manager at the China office of ActionAid, an anti-poverty organization.

About 49 percent of Chinese mothers with babies under 6 months breast-feed exclusively, said Ding Bing, editor of a breast-feeding newsletter in Beijing, citing a 2005 survey by China's Ministry of Health. In 2007, according to the ministry, about 72 percent of mothers with infants under 4 months practiced some breast-feeding.

In the United States, about 77 percent of new mothers breast-feed at least briefly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in April. Rates in both countries vary depending on whether researchers count exclusive breast-feeding or breast-feeding in combination with formula.

"Even some parents with a PhD believe that milk powder is better than breast-feeding," Ding said. "In the countryside, many mothers ask their parents to care for their babies so they can come to the cities to look for work. They don't realize how important breast-feeding is. No matter how much money they make later, it can't make up for the benefit of breast-feeding."

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