I am a nursing mom. Over four years and two kids I have experienced many benefits of breastfeeding first-hand. Nursing my babies has been a very positive thing for me, on the whole. Because of that experience I believe in the value of breastfeeding. And because I believe in the value of breastfeeding I’m generally opposed to formula marketing as it exists today. Logic dictates that if we want to support something, we shouldn’t promote the alternative.
But the other day as I was recycling yet another brochure from a formula company I thought about my own history. When Hannah was born and she wouldn’t nurse they sent us home from the hospital with a couple of cans of formula, and we bought some of our own. Within two days she was nursing and we didn’t use the remaining 80% of our formula supply. If you really want to breastfeed, will you just disregard the ads? I know that I did, for sure. Does formula marketing really convince people to stop breastfeeding?
So I decided to do some research, to see what information there was, if any. Is formula marketing effective? Are people who are inundated with promotional materials and free samples more likely to use formula?
Here are some results that I found:
- Women who were given formula company produced infant feeding information during prenatal visits were more likely to cease breastfeeding before discharge from hospital as well as before 2 weeks postpartum.
- Giving women research based discharge packs that support breastfeeding instead of formula company sponsored packs resulted in higher breastfeeding rates, as well as delayed the introduction of solids.
- The US Government Accountability Office found that in 7 of 11 studies it reviewed, breastfeeding rates were lower amongst mothers who received formula discharge packs from the hospital.
- In the US women who receive free formula through WIC are much less likely to breastfeed.
- Health care authorities and governments believe that formula marketing has a negative impact on breastfeeding.
- When women were given commercial hospital discharge packs from hospitals, at every stage exclusive breastfeeding was reduced compared to women who received non-commercial packs or no packs at all.
The evidence certainly suggests that formula marketing practices have a negative impact on breastfeeding, while research-based information has a positive impact. It just sort of makes sense because the purpose of marketing is to convince people to use your product. Formula companies are no different than anyone else on this front. They are trying to sell us something.
Of course, it’s our choice whether or not we want to use formula. If you have used it yourself I am not judging you. I think the problem is when it’s not really your choice. In a perfect world every mother would be satisfied with her breastfeeding experience, whatever it looks like. We aren’t living in a perfect world, though. In real life we are bombarded with conflicting information and we encounter problems we didn’t expect. The result is that many moms are not satisfied with their breastfeeding experience at all.
I think that the only possible solution is good breastfeeding support and information at all stages of maternity and infant care. We need to be there to help moms who want to breastfeed but can’t. We need to make sure that we’re not giving out conflicting information or leaving distraught mothers with no one to turn to. We also need to support moms and not make them feel guilty for their choices.
Based on the research and plain common sense unsolicited formula marketing may interfere with breastfeeding. Handing out free formula or promotional materials to all mothers ‘just in case’ sends the message that many moms probably can’t breastfeed. Sponsorship of medical conferences by formula marketers, posters in doctors’ offices, and samples distributed in the hospital lend a medical stamp to that message. And it’s a message that is just not helpful if we want to mothers to receive good breastfeeding information and support.
I know now that I was able to breastfeed Hannah. There was a while there where I didn’t think I could. I don’t believe I’m the only mom who’s felt alone and overwhelmed and didn’t think she could do it. Thankfully I had excellent support from my midwives, who came to my home to help me. If the only information on infant feeding I had was a brochure from a formula company I’m not sure I would have succeeded. And that’s why I think formula marketing is a problem, because it doesn’t contribute to empowering women to make the choices that are best for them. Whatever those choices may be.