Infant Feeding Today Pt. 3: Making a Baby-Friendly Culture Amid Formula Marketing


From ‘Talkabout Baby’ by Ladybird Books, via


  • What Formula Companies Want You to Believe


  • Can You Support Formula Feeders and Fight Formula Marketing?

**Also check out Part One (Why Isn’t Every Baby Breastfed?) and Part Two (Cow-Made, Man-Made, or Mother-Made?) of this series.**

The Truth About Formula Marketing

Formula companies literally spend billions of dollars every year on marketing, which means it’s a really, really, really ingenious kind of marketing. If you don’t think their advertising practices are ‘so bad,’ that’s because they worked — they are, in fact, so good.

Many women, perhaps especially those who wished to breastfeed, are lured by clever marketing to wrap their hands around a container of powdered goods. Formula companies like to boast the new and improved versions of their products, which are now “Closer Than Ever” to breast milk.

Truth is, even modern formulas are still hundreds of ingredients shy of matching the components of breast milk, so even a newly added ingredient doesn’t achieve measurably closer status to breast milk. Improved, yes, but similar to breast milk, no.

Then beyond the contents of the containers, of course there’s the packaging itself. Bottles will never be breasts.


Formula companies want you to believe that formula is ‘basically the same’ as breast milk. They’ve made a real craft of equating their products to breast milk and using the advantages of breastfeeding to serve as foundation for their own campaigns. Breastfeeding has no appropriate place in formula marketing except to remind that ‘breast is normal’ although formula ads do use ‘breast is best’ to their advantage (with attempts to demonstrate how the artificial product is really, kinda, pretty much almost-best).

One study asked people whether they agreed that breast milk offered many health benefits to babies — most answered yes. Then the same people who agreed with that statement were asked whether they believed formula feeding carried health risks — most said no. So, ‘breast is best,’ but formula isn’t bad. You see, it doesn’t hurt formula companies to declare ‘breast is best’ just like everyone else. This is a trick.

Watch how this kind of language has permeated and changed our culture:

Formula companies want you to believe that advertising is necessary because formula is in fact essential for babies who wouldn’t survive without it. Discussing formula and educating about formula (necessary) are NOT the same as advertising formula with ads and sales pitches (unnecessary).

Formula companies want you to speak the language written by formula culture. What does this language sound like? You’ll recognize it in Diane Wiessinger’s excellent article “Watch Your Language!” (reprinted from the Journal of Human Lactation, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1996).

Formula companies want you to believe ‘breast is best,’ but YOUR breasts probably aren’t. They want you to believe that all working moms must eventually supplement. They want mothers to question themselves, then seek answers in their all-knowing and almighty ‘expert’ baby food factory.

They want you to believe that free formula samples are harmless and even, by nature, helpful. That a desire to breastfeed exclusively is selfish. That breastfeeding is frumpy and formula is modern. That formula-feeding is easier. More convenient. Less painful. Cheap, even (did I mention the free samples?).

Does it seem like an exhausting amount of convincing just to get you to buy a product that’s apparently great as is?




Propaganda Tricks

Impact on Mothers

Impact on Babies

Making a Baby-Friendly Culture


Wait, isn’t it a bit offensive to attack formula marketing when so many parents we know and love are regular customers? Is it even possible to support formula-feeding families while attempting to muzzle the corporate giants that fill their baby bottles?

Yes, it is possible — you can read all about it in this article by Best for Babes that explains the bigger picture that some people are missing. Refusing support for formula marketing is not about restricting discussion about formula feeding or formula use for those who wish or need to have conversations about it.

You can support all of this and support all of this!

The WHO Code

Okay, true, so consumerism culture is sort of rotting our morals, but aren’t we all kinda ‘used to it’ by now? Why the overwhelming backlash against formula advertisements? Doesn’t it seem a bit overreactive and maybe even a bit unfair?

No, not according to thousands of mothers who are sick of being preyed upon for the contents of their wallets at the expense of their children (breastfeeders and formula-feeders alike), and not according to the World Health Organization, that which was so worried about the dangerous effects of formula marketing on global health outcomes that it instated the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes in 1981.

This Code prohibits the promotion of formula and milk substitutes in hospitals and related facilities, no free samples/supplies, no gifts to health care workers, no words/images idealizing artificial feeding, all labels should explicitly inform about the risks of formula-feeding (some feel it’s akin to the skull-and-crossbones sticker on cigarettes — though BookishMama opines here about why this is a crappy comparison), and more stipulations. The United States is one country that remains exempt from this code, which is why this type of marketing is perfectly legal stateside.

Free Formula in Hospital Discharge Bags

The formula ‘goodie bags’ widely distributed in hospitals as take-home ‘gifts’ to new mothers are evidentially proven to hurt many of those who want to breastfeed.  Did you know that the nation’s top-ranked hospitals now ban these bags and other forms of infant formula promotion? The rest, however, are still accepting and supplying these bags, which typically include information about formulas’ nutritive aspects, cute little freebies, breastfeeding ‘support’ in the form of supplements and helplines directed to a company that sells formula, formula coupons and huge discounts, free bottles and bottle nipples, free pacifiers, you name it!

After I gave birth to my son, I received a “Congratulations on your birth! Here’s Your Breastfeeding Support” bag set up with everything mentioned above, organized and positioned just-so the most heart-wrenching labels would appear at my eye level first upon opening: “Be sure you’re giving your baby the best start.” (Did an insane Christmas elf wrap these?!) Plus two huge, free containers of formula that seemed like enough to feed my newborn for two full weeks. And it didn’t stop there — I continued to receive formula samples and free logo-stamped bottles in the mail at my private residence for several weeks afterward. As a first-time mother new to breastfeeding this felt extremely violating, especially after confirming that I would be opting out of this type of mail at home. I said I was breastfeeding, so leave me alone and let me breastfeed!

It sounds like it’d be easy enough to ignore, right? But new moms, man… we’re desperate. We usually don’t know what the hell we’re doing, we’ve never known sleep deprivation quite like this, and many mothers’ minds keep jogging back to that innocent-looking formula ad that promised better sleep if only they could convince daddy to slip a formula bottle at the 3 a.m. feeding.

Thankfully, I knew better. At the time, I was too busy to do anything but laugh or ignore the unsolicited mailbox overflow. Not everyone is so lucky.

How Breastfed Babies Are Harmed:

  • Posing as breastfeeding experts When the first education a mom gets about breastfeeding is from a formula company, she’s got a problem. Before she settles into her first lactation consult (if she ever does), she’ll be inundated with coupons in the mail during pregnancy, free samples at the doctor’s office, full-size freebie containers waiting for her in the recovery room, all complete with “infant nutrition guides” and doctor-approved newborn health info… (no wonder more women are choosing to birth without doctor assistance). Let’s not forget the sickest attempt of ‘prescribing’ formula products: Nestle’s ‘milk nurses,’ anyone?

Via Baby Milk Action

  • Spreading incorrect or incomplete information about healthy infant feeding – The promotion of breastfeeding helps formula companies if breastfeeding education isn’t also included. Chanting “Breast is Best!” doesn’t actually help a woman breastfeed. Nursing is a learned behavior, not instinctual, and formula ads conveniently don’t bother to emphasize this.

  • Undermining the capability of women’s bodies and mothering instincts – Confident mothers (especially those who can shut out the brainwashing) breed confident babies.

How Formula-Fed Babies Are Harmed:

So, we know exclusively breastfed babies can benefit from the absence of formula marketing. But how are the families who need (or at their own behest choose) to use formula also hurt by unrestricted formula campaigns?

  • Biased recommendations – Do parents need these advertisements to determine where they can spend their money, and whom shall receive it? Or does it make more sense to inquire with their child’s nutritionist or pediatrician than to accept the claims of a magazine clip-out or manufacturer’s coupon? Anyone who wants or needs formula knows where to find it. They will make the right choice between brands based on the unique health needs of their babies, not on the fancy-schmancy pandering, free gifts, and ‘informationals’ hosted by formula companies. Ideally, parents shouldn’t be led to purchase formula by default of simply being ‘sold on it.’ Those who wish to feed formula deserve a better way to decide which formula will be best for their child without having to rely upon self-invested advertising.
  • Higher formula prices – The formula sample gift bags hurt those who plan to formula-feed because these ‘free’ bags jack up the prices on formula for sale. It also prevents those parents from receiving unbiased information about formula products before getting sidetracked by the enclosed clever rhetoric and emotion-snaring smiley baby imagery. Per Public Citizen Foundation: “When families continue using the brand name formulas given for ‘free’ in discharge bags, it will cost at least $700 extra per year.” Also, women in poverty-stricken areas often have trouble covering the cost of formula. This results in many families being forced to dilute the formula to “make it last,” which may lead to the child consumer’s malnutrition or the ultimate price — death.
  • Women can’t formula-feed without stigma – No more subliminally-manufactured rifts created between parents means no more ‘Mommy Wars.’ No more shame by association with predatory practices that serve to sabotage breastfeeding friends, belittle formula-feeding friends, and confuse mixed-feeding friends.
  • Women can’t formula-feed with real knowledge and without confusion – Without predatory formula marketing, breastfeeders can safely rely upon experienced peers and lactation consultants to learn how to feed their infants; formula-feeders can turn to their pediatricians to learn how to feed theirs; and mixed-feeders also have a variety of specialized, professional, evidence-based sources to learn how to best feed their infants given their own circumstances.
  • The U.S. economy suffers – A Pediatrics Journal study found that if 90% of families followed the global health recommendation of exclusively breastfeeding for six months, it could save the U.S. $13 billion in healthcare and other costs each year. Working women who breastfeed take fewer days off to tend to sick babies because their kids are healthier. Decreased formula feeding = increased breastfeeding. It’s an economical no-brainer.
  • Breast milk is equated to formula – There is no comparison. They aren’t an equivalent or similar type of feeding, they are two separate, different types. Just like apples and oranges — not like two brands of apples or two varieties of oranges, just two unrelated fruits. This is a problem for formula-feeders because it defaults formula as the ‘lesser option,’ incorrectly insinuating that formula users are inferior parents. It’s a different option, and only when directly compared to breast milk is it truly ‘lesser.’ Obviously, this effectively widens the divide between families and garners more support for companies rather than each other. Even the Fearless Formula Feeder is irked by ads like the one for Gerber Good Start.
  • A worse shot at breastfeeding – Well, truth be told, many formula-fed babies are on a formula diet because “Breastfeeding just didn’t work out.” Why do you think this usually happens, and who do you suspect is there waiting to give worried new mothers the “supplementary” solution? Given that nearly 80% of new mothers in the U.S. initiate breastfeeding, it’s safe to say that most women want to breastfeed. Yet, by six months, 85% have supplemented with or switched entirely to formula. Can you guess what happened here?

Is breastfeeding marketing just as bad?

Sometimes, it certainly has been! Read about it in my post on gross breastfeeding marketing tactics.

Breasts and the women who possess them are not products to sell, and formula is not a product to carelessly prepare and consume without knowing the risks and benefits of specific types for specific babies. Infant feeding should be ‘promoted’ through knowledge and support within our communities before we open a magazine or a new internet tab.

Let’s not cheapen our children’s nutrition, no matter where it comes from, by plastering its image alongside Tylenol, Kleenex, and Capri Sun ads with the implication that we as mothers cannot think for ourselves — whether we feed formula, breast milk, or both.