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Good News from The World Health Organization

Andrea Eastman
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 37 No. 4, August-September 2001, p. 91.

After years of debate about the optimal length of exclusive breastfeeding, on April 2, 2001 the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a report from its Expert Technical Consultation.

A systematic review of the scientific literature helped the expert consultation identify studies comparing exclusive breastfeeding for four to six months versus exclusive breastfeeding for six months. The review considered specific factors, including infant growth, infant iron status, morbidity (illness), atopic disease (allergy), motor development, postpartum weight loss, and amenorrhea. The WHO review was based on two small controlled studies and seventeen observational trials.

By carefully examining these studies, the expert consultation found that exclusive breastfeeding for six months can help protect a baby from gastrointestinal infection and from diarrhea. Exclusive breastfeeding for six months can also help prolong the length of lactational amenorrhea in mothers, and can help mothers lose more weight postpartum.

In light of the findings of this review, the WHO expert consultation has released new recommendations for practice. The WHO now recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months. Recognizing the need for complementary feeding at six months of age, the WHO recommends the introduction of nutritionally adequate, safe, and appropriate complementary foods at that point in development, in conjunction with continued breastfeeding.

The effects of these new recommendations for practice from the World Health Organization are already being felt. This WHO systematic review was presented to the 54th World Health Assembly in May 2001. On May 17, 2001, the World Health Assembly (WHA) passed a resolution recommending that infants be exclusively breastfed for six months, in spite of tremendous pressure to the contrary from the baby food industry. Paragraph 2.(4) of the resolution reads "The Fifty-fourth World Health Assembly ... urges member states to strengthen activities and develop new approaches to protect, promote and support exclusive breastfeeding for six months as a global public health recommendation, taking into account the findings of the WHO expert consultation on optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding, and to provide safe and appropriate complementary foods, with continued breastfeeding for up to two years of age or beyond, emphasizing channeIs of social dissemination of these concepts in order to lead communities to adhere to these practices."

References

The press release from the WHO is available online at
www.who.int/inf-pr-2001/en/note2001-07.html
WHA Resolution 54.2 is available online at
www.who.int/gb/EB_WHA/PDF/WHA54/ea54r2.pdf
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