WHO got it wrong on baby weight

May 8, 2006

The World Health Organisation has recently admitted that measurements of ifant weight has been distorted for more than 40 years, with the effect that many breastfed babies have appeared underweight.

According to this article in The Times, the WHO has been calculating infant growth weights based on formula-fed babies.

Charts used in Britain for decades to advise mothers on a baby’s optimum size have been based on the growth rates of infants fed on formula milk.

The organisation now says the advice given to millions of breast-feeding mothers was distorted because babies fed on formula milk put on weight far faster.

This calculating error has had many impacts – health officials now wonder how much these errors may contribute to childhood obesity and diabetes incidences, and may also have contributed to low rates of breastfeeding around the world as many mothers are pressured to switch to the bottle to “fatten up” their children.

When I read this article, I nearly started crying – when my daughter was six weeks old, I was told at our routine health check that she was “severely” underweight and that I would have to put her on a supplementary bottle. I will never forget the horror and guilt I felt when the pediatrician told me that it was “obvious” that my breast milk quality wasn’t enough to sustain my baby.

As it turned out, I had a pretty bad latching problem that no one had noticed – we lived in London at the time, away from family and friends, and the midwife who routinely saw us in the first six weeks simply didn’t notice that Jess wasn’t feeding well, even though I was asking her for her opinion.

The story, of course, has a happy end – I visited a lactation consultant who helped me correct the problem (and helped me relactate, as I hadn’t developed a proper milk supply in the first six weeks), and my daughter is still breastfeeding, at nearly 11 months. But even after correcting the latching technique, my daughter has always hovered at the low end of the growth chart – around 9th centile on the British charts, and 25th centile on the Australian charts. I have never been able to shake the guilty feeling that my daughter’s smaller weight was due to those first six weeks, but this article is beginning to help me put it all into perspective.

The other point to note is this: had I not been so committed to breastfeeding, I’m sure I would have immediately weaned to a bottle, and my confidence in breastfeeding other children would have been severly shaken. How many other mothers out there have gone this route?