Editorial: Breastfeeding as a biological norm

Published in The Hindu on June 5, 2006

The `International child growth standard’ recently announced by the World Health Organisation is significant for many reasons. It marks a radical departure from the present outdated approach of `how children grow’ in a particular region and time to a more precise and progressive way of describing how children `should grow’ when all their needs are met. While the growth reference, in use since the late 1970s, was based on a limited sample of mostly formula-food-fed children from the United States, the current standard relies on a representative study involving nearly 8,500 healthy breastfed infants and children from six countries India, Brazil, Ghana, Norway, Oman, and the U.S. The study has established that a child’s growth up to age five is influenced more by nutrition, feeding practices, and other factors than by genetics or ethnicity, and hence the parameters are universally applicable.

With childhood obesity posing a major health concern, WHO has for the first time included body mass index (BMI)in the standard. While childhood obesity has become a serious problem in many developed countries, developing nations cannot afford to shut their eyes to the phenomenon. While calorie-rich carbonated drinks and fast foods are among the main culprits for childhood obesity, WHO has contributed to the unhealthy trend by having set the bar, thus far, at a level that can be matched only when infants are fed breast milk substitutes. The new growth standard that establishes breastfeeding as a “biological norm” and the numerous studies showing that childhood obesity continued into adulthood should serve as a clarion call for parents to revisit their notions on early introduction of breast milk substitutes.