Unpacking Infant Formula Marketing’s Impact on the U.S.

April 24, 2023

Last week’s launch of the 2023 Lancet Series on Breastfeeding examined the U.S. implications of the three-paper series.

The research published in the Lancet shows the extent to which commercial milk formula marketing undermines how families want to feed their babies:

  • Normal infant behaviors, such as crying and frequent waking, are framed as abnormal.
  • Scientific words and unsubstantiated claims are used to make families believe formula is superior to human milk.
  • The system of formula marketing captures parents, communities, science and policy and international recommendations to shape societal and professional norms, values and beliefs and to alter decisions.

The implications to the infant feeding landscape in the U.S. are alarming:

  • The U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t provide paid parental leave.
  • Weak privacy laws allow targeted online marketing of commercial milk formula
  • Trade policy undermines other countries’ attempts at regulating formula marketing
  • Corporate tax shelters mean less funding for public health and more for formula marketing initiatives.

Not to put too fine a point on the situation, but the U.S. undermines families at every turn. We haven’t adopted the WHO Code. We won’t regulate the formula industry. We punish other countries who try to assert their own regulations. We allow formula companies to influence health care providers, families and policymakers by sponsoring research and professional societies. Oh…and we let these companies get away with paying minimal taxes, which robs public health programs from desperately needed funding.

Screenshot from a slide in the Lancet formula marketing presentation

Meanwhile, we don’t have paid family leave policies to support chest/breastfeeding initiation and duration. We don’t value the importance of quality, timely lactation education and support. We support inequities by allowing insurance companies to determine how and when lactation and human milk feeding are supported through covered benefits.

And yet — despite all that is working against U.S. families — we see glimpses of hope.

The Biden-Harris Administration’s National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health calls for the expansion of chest/breastfeeding support and counseling (pg. 26). The PUMP Act has created a minimum standard for workplace lactation accommodation throughout the nation. The Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative has dramatically increased breastfeeding initiation rates through the standardization of evidence-based infant feeding practices. Nonprofit milk banks are supporting NICUs in feeding human milk to the most vulnerable infants. The WIC peer counselor program and local coalitions provide community-based lactation resources and support. Statewide coalitions across the nation have successfully advocated for lactation-supportive policies at all levels. And though compliance is inconsistent, Medi-Cal has updated its policy manuals to expand how and when donor human milk is covered at no cost to families.

We encourage you to view the Lancet launch and download the presentation materials to understand the reality we face as lactation advocates and the recommendations for how we can continue to protect, promote and support lactation and chest/breastfeeding in our communities.

Predatory Marketing Practices in California

Even with some of the strongest lactation and breastfeeding protections in the nation, California is not immune to exploitive marketing practices from commercial milk formula companies. To the right, you’ll see a social media post from an individual living in Fresno County.

Image of sample-size commercial infant formula canisters

A Fresno County woman reported receiving this shipment of commercial infant formula unexpectedly.

This individual is over the age of 40 and the parent of a 17-year-old girl. After posting this, the individual discovered fellow parents of teen girls in the area had received similar unsolicited sample deliveries.

Below, are screenshots of ads that have appeared on the California Breastfeeding Coalition’s Instagram feed this week. Generally, we see a pattern of one ad or sponsored posts for every three posts from accounts we follow. When we click the three dots at the upper-right corner of the ad to see why we’re seeing the ads, the formula ads indicate they are targeting women over the age of 18 living in the U.S. These companies, Bobbie and Aussie Bubs, have ads running on both Facebook and Instagram.

If you want to see the investment formula companies make in social media advertising targeting U.S. families, you can do so through the Meta Ads Library. Not all ads are run directly by the formula companies, though. Some are run by marketing agencies and publicity partners, such as YourBabyClub.com (owned by FanFinders.com). As of April 22, here’s how many active social media ads mention formula brands, listed in order of volume:

  • Enfamil — 440
  • Similac — 240 (includes ads soliciting plaintiffs for a class-action lawsuit)
  • Aussie Bubs — 100
  • Bobbie — 45

Formula Marketing on social media