Health, not wealth, is key when it comes to feeding our babies

Kathriona Devereux reflects on a new report on how the marketing of formula milk influences our decisions on infant feeding
Health, not wealth, is key when it comes to feeding our babies

BREAST IS BEST: But the 40% or so of women who choose not to breastfeed, or are unable to, need access to unbiased information

PART of my personal and professional life intersected last week, when I moderated the global launch event of a new World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF report on how the marketing of formula milk influences our decisions on infant feeding.

As a TV producer and science communicator, I have been making and presenting factual programming about science, health, food and the environment for almost 20 years, and through work I developed an interest in the food industry’s influence on public health.

In my personal life, I am a mother of two, and like many first-time mothers I found breastfeeding challenging and I needed lots of support to help me continue breastfeeding.

With a desire to pay some of that support back, I later trained as a voluntary breastfeeding counsellor and realised through that work that even though one-to-one support is very important, it can’t help all the other factors that influence families’ infant feeding choices, and I started advocating for greater protection of infant feeding - regardless whether a baby is breastfed or formula fed.

Personal preference, maternity leave, access to lactation support, and wider societal and economic pressures all influence how a family will end up feeding their baby. But the marketing efforts of the infant formula industry play a big role in influencing that decision.

The WHO’s new report shows this marketing can no longer be ignored and needs urgent attention and regulation. The infant formula industry is worth $55 billion every year and the industry spends between $3-5 billion on marketing their products.

It takes a lot of money to convince a woman to buy something she herself makes superiorly for free.

The report is worth a read - it’s short and available on the WHO website. It is the culmination of years of research involving thousands of participants across eight countries including the United Kingdom, Vietnam and South Africa, and provides strong evidence for the pervasive and exploitative nature of infant formula marketing.

It shows that most pregnant women surveyed expressed a strong desire to breastfeed exclusively. However, a sustained flow of misleading marketing messages reinforces myths about breastfeeding and breast milk, undermining women’s confidence in their ability to breastfeed successfully.

In countries with poor support for breastfeeding in the health system or little maternity protections, women are really up against it.

The report is not about infant formula as a product, or criticising families who can’t or choose not to breastfeed, it is about protecting ALL families , regardless of how they feed their babies, from marketing that is driven by the pursuit of profit, not the pursuit of public health.

For the 60% of Irish women who start breastfeeding, access to timely skilled breastfeeding support from a trained professional is critical.

That means more investment in maternity services in hospitals and communities, so midwives and nurses have the time to spend with mothers and assist them in the early days.

Protecting these women who want to breastfeed from marketing messages that undermine their confidence would complement public health efforts to increase breastfeeding rates.

For the 40%, or so, of women in Ireland who choose not to breastfeed or are unable to breastfeed and need to use formula - they should have access to unbiased, impartial information to help them feed their babies.

The HSE’s bottle feeding advice says “First infant formula is the type of formula recommended for newborns. This should always be the formula you use and is suitable until your baby is one year old.”

After the baby turns one, they can switch to full fat cow’s milk - and can stop using formula.

The myriad of infant milks on supermarket shelves are in themselves a form of marketing because there is no need for most of them, from a nutritional point of view, and the scientific claims around them are unsubstantiated.

Irish law bans the advertising of first infant milks for babies up to six months old so companies created ‘follow-on milks’ for babies older than that, which allows them to get their brands into the public consciousness.

Research has shown that many parents don’t differentiate between first infant milk or follow-on milk when they see these ads. Which suits the industry just fine.

The range of milks available can be confusing for parents and many follow the various stages 1, 2 and 3 as laid out by the packaging, without realising that just using Stage 1 for the first 12 months of a baby’s life is what is recommended.

Comfort milks, hungry baby and toddler milks are other types of milks that the industry peddles.

Here’s what the HSE says about follow-on milks: “Switching to follow-on formula at six months has no benefits for your baby”.

Regarding hungry baby formula, the HSE says: “Hungry baby formula contains more casein than whey. Casein is a protein that is harder for babies to digest. It’s often described as suitable for ‘hungrier babies’. There is no evidence that babies settle better or sleep longer when fed this type of formula.”

Companies say that they operate and advertise within national legislation, therefore the legislation needs urgent updating.

The WHO report provides strong evidence of the multiple ways industry targets pregnant women and mothers to turn them into customers, and governments worldwide need to act quickly to protect families by enacting stricter regulation to curb this marketing.

The Irish government has an opportunity to regulate the digital marketing of infant formula milks with the forthcoming Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill.

At the very least, I hope that this report brings a newfound cynicism to Irish consumers and parents. That people begin to see every TV ad, every social media post, every invitation to a baby club, sponsored talk, helpline, and every #ad by an Instagram influencer revealing the contents of their hospital bag as a cynical ploy by the infant formula company to ingratiate their brand into a families’ life and generate sales.

Having a baby is a celebrated and sacrosanct human milestone throughout the world that should be supported and protected. Not treated as a sales opportunity.

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