NEWS

Some Baby Formula Websites Actively Discourage Breastfeeding

person breastfeeding

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study notes that baby formula websites are explicitly discouraging breastfeeding.
  • Marketing strategies, including coupons and free samples, may discourage parents from trying to breastfeed.
  • When deciding whether to breastfeed or formula feed your baby, it’s important to make an informed decision.

Whether you choose to breastfeed, formula feed, or combination feed your baby is an important decision to make. Breastfeeding advocates say they want to ensure parents have the tools they need to make an informed feeding decision. A new study shows that moms may not always be given unbiased facts.

The study, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, found that the websites for several baby formula companies actively discourage breastfeeding. The findings may lead parents to focus only on the difficulty of breastfeeding, without painting a full picture of its benefits.

Details of the Study

Researchers at the NYU School of Global Public Health studied the websites of three major infant formula manufacturers—Gerber, Similac, and Enfamil. They note that together, these companies represent approximately 98% of the U.S. baby formula market. They also viewed the websites of two organic infant formula companies, Earth’s Best and Happy Baby.

Investigators analyzed the content of the online pages. They paid particular attention to the messages that were conveyed, and whether or not they referenced breastfeeding or formula feeding. They also combed the sites to see if formula was being compared as better to anything besides another formula.

Jennifer Harris, PhD

If you look at the websites of the formula companies, it’s clear that their primary competitor is breastfeeding.

— Jennifer Harris, PhD

Researchers found that although the websites’ goal was to promote a particular formula, several messages instead explicitly portrayed breastfeeding in a negative light. The sites focused on difficult aspects of breastfeeding, including engorgement, slow milk supply, and leaking breastmilk. Conversely, subtle messages were given to humanize formula feeding and promote the formula nutrients as being “closest to” or “inspired by” those found in breastmilk.

“I think one of the most interesting findings was that most companies view other companies that are selling the same product as their primary competitors...If you look at the websites of the formula companies, it’s clear that their primary competitor is breastfeeding,” notes Jennifer Harris, PhD, of the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, and senior author of the study.

While experts acknowledge that breastfeeding can indeed be challenging, they note the implicit negative messages can deter parents from even making an attempt at breastfeeding their new babies.

Marketing Baby Formula to Consumers

In the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, the World Health Organization discourages the marketing of food used in place of breastmilk. The Code notes that text and images should not idealize the use of a breastmilk substitute. However, the United States still allows formula companies to market to consumers. Websites, social media pages, and newspaper ads focus on convincing parents to use formula.

Nicole S. Jenkins, IBCLC

Families may not have had a chance to consider how to feed their new infant before being exposed to strong marketing tactics, such as those about the ‘benefits and ease’ of formula.

— Nicole S. Jenkins, IBCLC

“Mothers often receive formula marketing throughout (their) pregnancy. This may range from coupons to actual free samples of formula. Families may not have had a chance to consider how to feed their new infant before being exposed to strong marketing tactics, such as those about the ‘benefits and ease’ of formula,” explains Nicole S. Jenkins, BSN, RNC-NIC, IBCLC, a lactation consultant at John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

Baby formula can be very helpful to a parent who chooses not to breastfeed or is unable to do so. The problem occurs when the opportunity to weigh the options is not given. What’s offered, instead, is a solution that seems to be easy, and may work to diminish other viable options.

“This type of marketing that presents the antagonistic viewpoint of infant formula versus human milk fosters an undermining of an individual’s confidence in their ability to successfully breastfeed, as well as a sense of negativity to professionals who advocate for breastfeeding as a public health priority,” says Jennifer Kleckner, BSN, RN, IBCLC, LCCE, the lead outreach specialist RN at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital.

Why Breastfeeding Matters

Making an effort to provide your child the best nourishment for your circumstances, whether that’s breastmilk or formula, is critical. Experts agree, however, that breastmilk is an ideal feeding source.

“Breastmilk is the ‘gold standard’. It provides passive immunity, it prevents or lowers the risk of certain illnesses, it decreases the risk for SIDS, and it provides easily absorbed nutritional components,” Jenkins asserts.

The American Pregnancy Association notes that breastmilk contains an increased level of well-balanced nutrients, is easy for a baby to digest, and automatically meets a child’s changing nutritional requirements as the baby ages. Infant formula may be more difficult for a baby to absorb than breastmilk, can have a varying nutritional content depending on how it is prepared, and does
not provide passive immunity like breastmilk can.

Parents should understand that feeding their baby breastmilk is a viable, feasible, and even enjoyable choice. Creating an atmosphere where breastfeeding is encouraged and where workplaces make allowances for breastfeeding parents to provide breastmilk could be steps to supporting breastfeeding.

When parents feel supported and are presented with truthful information, they may be more willing to try breastfeeding their little one.

What This Means For You

Deciding to breastfeed or formula feed your baby is a personal decision. As the study notes, when gathering information, you should be cognizant of the source. Take the time to research the benefits of your feeding options and do what is best for you and your family. At the end of the day, a fed baby is a loved baby, and you should do what is best for your specific circumstances.

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4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Barennes H, Slesak G, Goyet S, Aaron P, Srour LM. Enforcing the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes for better promotion of exclusive breastfeeding: Can lessons be learned? Journal of Human Lactation: Official Journal of International Lactation Consultant Association. 2016;32(1). doi:10.1177/0890334415607816

  4. Hastings G, Angus K, Eadie D, Hunt K. Selling second best: how infant formula marketing works. Globalization and Health. 2020;16(1). doi:10.1186/s12992-020-00597-w