Breastfeeding in the Philippines – Breast is Best

3 mins read

By Anja Holgersson

“You were breastfed left and right, high and low”, my mum would tell me. This might not sound particularly unusual, however in my case, it sort of was. When I was only 6 weeks old my family moved to Manila, in the Philippines. At that time, more than 20 years ago, several big companies were promoting feeding babies with formula, instead of breastfeeding. This was marketed as something that was both luxurious, and better for the infants’ health. When my mum arrived, it felt natural for her to breastfeed me openly. In part she said, this was because it was convenient when she was out and about. Another reason was to show women there that white western mothers also breastfeed, and that doing so isn’t something only for poor mothers who can’t afford better. Hearing my mum’s stories, I thought that surely this stigma of feeding babies in the open must be gone. However, looking into it, this is still a big issue. Although the Philippines has come a long way in these past decades with both development and the wellbeing of the people, breastfeeding is still a complicated issue. 

WHO has said that breastmilk is the perfect food for a newborn, and their recommendation is that children should be exclusively breastfed until they are 6 months. Even so, in the Philippines only 34% of mothers breastfeed exclusively during their babies first months. This has caused the Philippine Health department to ban formula companies from advertising milk products for children under one year. There are three main companies involved – Nestlé, Abbott and Mead Johnson, according to an investigation done in 2018 by The Guardian together with Save the Children. Representatives from these companies are often seen at hospitals, both handing out commercial pamphlets and coupons to mothers, but also buying doctors and midwives’ loyalty by bringing them various gifts. Apart from that, there is also extensive marketing through Facebook and blogs. Formula companies spend £36 on advertising for every new baby born. In other words, it is very hard for new mums to fend off the advertising and misinformation. 

Buying formula is also really expensive. Some mothers admit to spending three quarters of their salaries on milk, which results in them not eating themselves in order to afford formula.This not only affects their health but also their ability to work and earn a living, thus also affecting their children. Also, since it is so expensive, sometimes babies are only given half-bottles. Apart from that, bottle-feeding babies requires clean water, in order to sterilise the bottles. Poorly sterilised bottles can result in the babies having to go to the hospital. Both of these issues could be resolved by breastfeeding. Being brought up with health issues already from such an early age might affect the children for the rest of their lives. This both influences the development of the infants, but also the general development of a whole country. For instance, hungry children won’t do as well in school and this will affect both the job sector and the economy. Caring for the population when they are young is not only humane, it is also a way of ensuring a good future for the country. 

Breastfeeding Pinay is a Filipino NGO who is trying to promote breastfeeding. Amongst other things, they are trying to encourage stores and restaurants to put up signs if they are breastfeeding-friendly, as a way of putting an end to women having to feed their babies in restrooms. In western culture the stigma of breastfeeding in public is fairly recent and derives from a sexualisation of women’s bodies. In the Philippines this is also a part of the problem. However, another reason for the stigma is being perceived as poor, or unable to properly care for your kids. In 2017 Breastfeeding Pinay even had a sort of breastfeeding flashmob, where 2000 women demonstrated by feeding their children in public. They are hoping to ease the taboo and in doing so reduce child mortality. In the 90s, when my family was in the Philippines, 56 out of every 1000 children under five died. In 2017 that number was 28 per 1000 instead. There have been some positive changes, but breastfeeding activists are still fighting. 

Of course, some mothers choose to bottle feed instead of breastfeed their children. I am not arguing that one option is always better than the other. However, the decision should be left to the mother, not to different marketing bureaus. It is wrong to intentionally market a product that is in many cases not necessary, and that is also very expensive, towards those who can least afford it. 

In these two decades it might seem as though the Philippines has come a long way. Child mortality is down, there are better laws in place to protect infants and protestors are raising their voices. I think of those children that I grew up next to. Will they raise their own kids in the same way, being pushed into bottle feeding them? Or could they break the cycle? These big companies are sly enough to get around the current laws that are in place and so more must be done to protect those affected. Otherwise, who knows how many generations will be victims of their greed?

If you want to know more about the women’s situation and about childbirth in the Philippines, watch the documentary ‘Motherland’. It follows several women and their experience in the Fabella hospital, one of the busiest maternity wards in the world.

Illustration: Julia Holmström

Anja Holgersson is studying the bachelor program in Peace and Development studies. She’s a Brexit-remainer, funk fanatic and cinnamon bun connoisseur.

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