EXPERTS are demanding a crackdown on the promotion of formula milk for babies as new research estimates universal breastfeeding could save more than 800,000 lives a year.

Writing in a top medical journal a team of Scottish researchers, along with other child health organisations, say the aggressive promotion of breast milk substitutes is a major barrier to increasing the number of mothers who breastfeed.

Dr Alison McFadden, one of the authors and a senior researcher specialising in inequalities in maternal and infant health at Dundee University, said the UK along with other countries should end advertising of formula for babies over six months old.

She said: "The work we have done is not about whether individual mothers or babies should or should not breastfeed, it is their choice.

"We are saying there is no role for the blatant marketing of breast milk substitutes or infant formula. If we compare what the government spend on promoting breastfeeding with the value of the global sales of milk formula then there is absolutely no comparison."

Restricting the promotion of alternatives to breast milk, she said, is one way to tackle barriers which make it more difficult for mothers to breastfeed.

The latest figures for Scotland show 35 per cent of babies are exclusively breastfed at 10 days old. Combination feeding, where infants receive some breast milk and some formula, has increased slightly in the last decade while exclusive feeding has dipped. By six to eight weeks 27 per cent are exclusively breastfed.

According to the new analysis published in The Lancet increasing breastfeeding to near-universal levels for infants and young children could save more than 800,000 young lives a year worldwide.

Professor Cesar Victora, from the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil and author of the breastfeeding series, said it was a misconception to think the survival benefits largely related to poor countries.

She said: “Our work for this series clearly shows that breastfeeding saves lives and money in all countries, rich and poor alike. Therefore, the importance of tackling the issue globally is greater than ever.”

The research found in high-income countries breastfeeding reduces the risk of sudden infant deaths by more than a third, while in low-and middle-income countries about half of all diarrhoea episodes and a third of respiratory infections could be avoided by breastfeeding. For mothers, there is evidence longer-duration breastfeeding reduces the risks of breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

There is an international code governing the marketing of breast milk substitutes (BMS) and in the UK it is applied to the promotion of milk powder which babies can drink from birth.

However, the paper by Dr MacFadden and her colleagues cites ways in which companies get around the rules. The article, also published in The Lancet, says: "BMS companies circumvent the ban on advertising infant formula by promoting follow-on milks that are not nutritionally necessary and for which companies make exaggerated claims.

"In some countries, including Bangladesh, Brazil, and the UK, BMS companies were reported to seek to influence health professionals through inappropriate sponsorship of health conferences, promotion of their products (eg, by offering incentives to health professionals who sell or promote their products), and forming links with national health professional associations."

They say urgent action is needed to "ensure that the public, health professionals, and decision makers do not continue to be exposed to the dominance of the promotion of BMS."

They also want breastfeeding to be included in new international goals due to be agreed early this year, saying the benefits of preventing infections are not restricted to mothers and children but also the wider community.