HCM CITY - Whenever he saw his neighbours' chubby babies, 29-year-old Nguyen Ngoc Tuan felt sad and his worries rose.
His own four-month son was gaining weight rather slowly, the District 2 resident felt, and wondered whether he should supplement breastfeeding with formula milk.
Fortunately, he did not take matters into his own hands. He visited the City Nutrition Centre and presented his anxieties, only to get the advice that he should encourage his wife to breastfeed exclusively for first six months at least, and if possible, continue breastfeeding until his son was 24 months old.
His son would not need to drink formula milk because mother's milk contained enough nutrition to help babies develop weight and height, he was told.
The centre's doctors also assured Tuan not to worry about the slow rate at which his son was gaining weight. If he gained 600 grams per month, it was good enough, they said.
Tuan's worry is not uncommon. Many parents and grandparents are afraid that their children and grandchildren are malnourished, and have the misconception that fat babies are well developed and healthy.
A recent study conducted among 400 mothers by the National Obstetric and Gynecologycal Hospital found 52.7 per cent used supplementary food including formula milk for their babies even before their babies were six months old. Most mothers said they were influenced by advertisements on the benefits of formula milk that claimed it would stimulate babies' intelligence and help them gain weight.
According to Dr Hoang Kim Thanh, head of the National Institute of Nutrition's Centre for Reproductive Healthcare, formula milk produced from cow milk contains a different type of protein than breast milk.
"It is good for calves, but human infants can have difficulty in digesting it," Thanh said, adding infants who use this milk tend to be fatter than breast-fed infants, but not necessarily healthier. "Children fed too early with formula milk can suffer from obesity in the future."
Le Thi Hop, head of the institute, said there was growing evidence of child obesity in Ha Noi and HCM City.
"Breastfeeding is one of the ways to help reduce the rate of children with obesity," she added. Dr Nguyen Thanh Ha, head of the National Obstetric and Gynecological Hospital's Infants Ward, confirmed on the website Phunudep.com that many infants and children were brought to the hospital with colitis, obesity and ear infections.
This was because they were given formula milk and supplementary food, Ha said. There had even been instances of infants dying because they used formula milk of dubious origin, she added.
In the latest meeting celebrating the World Breastfeeding Week, Deputy Minister of Health Nguyen Viet Tien, said that increasing breastfeeding was one of the ways to implement well the national target of reducing infant mortality by 2015.
According to Do Thi Ngoc Diep, deputy head of the HCM City Nutrition Centre, human milk contains just the right amount of fatty acids, lactose, water and amino acids for human digestion, brain development and growth.
Human milk has at least 100 ingredients not found in formula milk, and breast-fed babies have fewer illnesses because about 80 per cent of the cells in breast milk are macrophage, cells that kill bacteria, fungi and virus.
Breast-fed children are protected from a number of illnesses like pneumonia, botulism, bronchitis, staphylococcal infections, influenza and ear infection.
The milk produced by mothers immediately after their babies are born have a very high capacity to prevent infectious diseases.
"That is the reason why mothers are encouraged to breastfeed their newborn babies within 30 minutes or one hour after they are born," Diep added.
Moreover, when breastfeeing, mothers would use one way of birth control, because it will limit ovulation, Diep said. The rate of breast and ovarian cancer among women who breastfeed their babies for six months to two years was significantly lower.
Furthermore, mother's milk straight from the breast was always sterile, never contaminated by polluted water or dirty bottles, which often led to diarrhea, she noted.
Another breastfeeding benefit of breast milk was that each family could save US$1,200-1,500 (S$1,457 -1,821) by avoiding formula milk purchases.
In Viet Nam, breastfeeding each year helps save more than US$500 million that would otherwise be spent on health check-ups and treatment for illnesses (that can be prevented by breastfeeding).
Tran Thi Kim Tuyen, a 21-year-old resident of District 1 and mother of a 10-month-old son, said her husband was the sole income earner in the family, so they had to be careful with their expenditures.
"Breastfeeding helps my family save the cost of buying formula milk for my son, not to mention medical expenses because my son is rarely ill," Tuyen said.
Meanwhile Dr Thanh said mothers shoud not worry that breastfeeding would spoil their figure. This fear prevented some mothers from breastfeeding their babies, studies found.