WHO/UNICEF reports illustrates impacts of formula marketing on infant feeding & practices

February 28, 2022

A report released by WHO/UNICEF last week revealed that more than half of parents and pregnant women say they’ve been exposed to targeted marketing from formula companies.

Much of the practices reported are direct violations of the international standards on infant feeding practices.

The report, How Marketing of Formula Milk Influences Our Decisions on Infant Feeding, compiles results from interviews with 8,500 people (parents, pregnant women and health care workers) in eight countries. 

Key finding from the report:

  1. Formula milk marketing is pervasive, personalized, and powerful.
  2. Formula milk companies use manipulative marketing tactics that exploit parents’ anxieties and aspirations.
  3. Formula milk companies distort science and medicine to legitimize their claims and push their product.
  4. Industry systematically targets health professionals – whose recommendations are influential – to encourage them to promote formula milk products.
  5. Formula milk marketing undermines parents’ confidence in breastfeeding.
  6. Counter-measures can be effective, but must be comprehensively expanded and scaled up.

These findings are all-too familiar, aren’t they? Though marketing practices here in California might not be as egregious as in other countries, we have all seen the ads claiming formula has the same health benefits as breastmilk, or that it contains nutrients babies desperately need but can’t get elsewhere. We see the formula samples freely given to health care providers or sent unsolicited to the homes of expectant and new parents.

There is nothing wrong with formula as a product. It provides a life-sustaining nutrition to infants whose parents can’t or don’t want to provide human milk. However, the way formula is marketed — even now — undermines breastfeeding and child health, and it disrupts truly informed decision-making. 

This is why we here at the California Breastfeeding Coalition support and urge you to consider the following opportunities for action listed by WHO/UNICEF in their report:

  • Recognize the scale and urgency of the problem — We can’t fix problems by ignoring them. We have to admit the gravity of the situation at hand.
  • Legislate, regulate, enforce — We must promote and protect laws that prevent formula marketing and hold companies accountable for exploitive practices. Countries should
  • Protect the integrity of science and medicine — We need strong policies that prevent corporate interests from influencing the health guidance and recommendations on infant and child feeding.
  • Safeguard children’s health on digital platforms — We need enforceable regulations that prevent harmful commercial marketing regarding infant and child health.
  • Invest in mothers and families, divest from formula milk companies — Families often choose formula due to circumstances that aren’t supportive of breastfeeding, such as lack of paid family leave or access to quality lactation education and support.
  • Expand coalitions to drive action — We need concentrated, consistent action to challenge commercial marketing practices and demand action and accountability.

We encourage you to download a copy of the report and watch the corresponding webinar highlighting key findings from the report.