The problem with advertising formula

Let me just say right from the start: this post is not anti-formula.

I have had to use formula in the past. I may have to use it again in the future. I very much believe that formula should be available and that women should not feel coerced into breastfeeding.

The arguments here are levied at the corporate giants that benefit from commercializing generations of babies’ health.

I picked up a parenting magazine last month for its refreshing “real life” cover story: “Why I’m still breastfeeding my two year old”. I smiled and turned to it.

Glaring opposite was a page-length advert for Cow & Gate’s Mum & Baby Club featuring a pregnant woman with a cute little stuffed cow on her bump.

I turned back. The page preceding the breastfeeding feature was also a formula advert, this one for HiPP Organic follow-on milk. Two pages later there was an Aptamil follow-on milk advert.

Two messages are conveyed by placing these advertisements here: 1. formula is just another way to feed your baby, almost equal, in fact and 2. breastfeeding is good if you can manage it but you probably can’t – no need to worry, there are alternatives (We’ll return to these messages in a bit).

In total, the issue carried two Aptamil milk adverts, two Cow & Gate adverts (one for a follow-on milk, the other for the club I mentioned), a video channel advert sponsored by both Cow & Gate and Aptamil, a HiPP Organic milk advert and a promotion for a supermarket baby event which also carried a promotion for Aptamil Growing Up Milk.

You could certainly be forgiven, looking through this magazine, for believing that formula feeding is the biological norm. In this country it certainly is the cultural norm.

I’m not naïve. I know magazines make their money from advertising. Formula is big business. That’s where the problem lies. Every year, formula companies spend an estimated 20 pounds on our babies and the government only spends around 10 pence. We can see who Goliath is here.

You may be thinking, but these are adverts for follow-on milks not first milks. Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that breastmilk isn’t just for the first six months as if after that anything goes – formula companies put the same branding on follow-on milks and first milks.

Maybe there are different colours but the logos and labelling is pretty much the same. The effect? When you see them, you simply see an advert for formula. This is much more so for new parents and parents-to-be.

Worse still, the Mum & Baby Club is targeting pregnant women. But it’s just a club: fun pregnancy info and all that? The ad itself acknowledges that it’s talking formula, breastmilk substitute. The tiny print states: “Breastfeeding is best for babies and provides many benefits…” (I may write a future post on these disclaimers, actually).

But, anyway, what’s the real problem with advertising formula? This is where we return to the messages mentioned earlier: formula is almost equal to breastmilk, and you probably can’t breastfeed. These ideas are not only misleading but they undermine breastfeeding.

Aptamil’s catch-line “Closer than ever” and HiPP Organic’s “We learnt from the Breast” may not seem problematic on the surface but I have heard mothers quote them using this to reassure each other that formula is almost as good as breastmilk.

As an opinion, it could work, but the more I read about the science of formula and breastmilk and what’s in them, the more I realise that, as fact, it really doesn’t stand up.

Breastmilk is a live substance. Formula is not. Its thousands of components dwarf the list of synthetic ingredients at the back of a formula tin. The adverts don’t tell you that.

The second message “You probably can’t breastfeed” is often tied up in the argument people make for formula advertising. They say that to ban formula adverts is to restrict women’s choice to formula feed.

I really struggle to find the logic here. How do formula adverts offer freedom of choice? Perhaps they help women feel better about their choices but no one should be reliant on a company’s propaganda when making a decision about her baby’s health.

As for choice… People know that formula exists. Advertisements are not telling you that it does. They are attempting to lure you into buying a particular brand. Between the brands, no real information is being given about the product, either.

Formula ingredients are not fully standardized. Which one is the “best” is a matter of opinion. And you can be sure every brand will give you its opinion.

If anything, the advertising of formula could restrict your choice because it offers an attractive alternative when you’re struggling with breastfeeding, thereby sabotaging what could possibly have survived with the appropriate support. With the right help, only a very small minority of women medically can’t breastfeed.

So what am I saying? Ban the advertising of formula? Personally? Well, yeah, probably.

Whether or not that happens though, we need more adverts for breastfeeding. A few of those need to be splashed around those magazines to at least give women considering breastfeeding a fighting chance. We need to be reminded that feeding our children the biologically normal way isn’t weird.

I don’t think it’s enough to advertise breastfeeding, though. With many more women starting than are continuing at even two weeks, women aren’t stopping because they haven’t heard the “Breast is best” message (I can’t tell you how much I detest that phrase). So many women want to continue but just aren’t getting the support they so badly need.

I’m talking adverts for breastfeeding AND breastfeeding support: helplines, groups, where to get someone to come visit, adverts encouraging women who’ve breastfed to openly offer to help each other. I don’t know. There are possibilities. We need to explore them.

This is a big topic so I welcome lively but respectful discussion. Remember, formula is not evil. Also, breastfeeding advocacy is not comparable with attempted genocide. Let’s talk.

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