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Episode 64: How Formula Marketing Disrupts Breastfeeding

February 23, 2022

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Welcome back to another episode of Breastfeeding Talk. I’m your host, Jacqueline Kincer. And in today’s episode, I’m going to be talking with you about Formula marketing. And now I know this might seem like a touchy subject for a lot of people. But I want to be really, really clear that what we’re talking about is formula marketing. And what prompted this episode is that I literally just got done listening to and watching the World Health Organization’s presentation called marketing the $55 billion formula milk industry. Now this presentation was extremely well done, it was clear, it was concise. They had a panel of experts, they had the director, Dr. Tadros, I am totally going to mispronounce his last name, so I won’t even attempt to that. But they did an excellent presentation. And I’ll be sharing the link in the show notes here for you. So you can watch the recording, you can watch the videos they’ve put together, and any other resources that I mentioned in this episode. And you know, this is really, really an important topic to tackle. And it’s one that I feel like isn’t really talked about unless you’re talking about things in the context of the World Health Organization or UNICEF, because it just creates this debate about formula versus breast milk. And I want to be really clear that this is not at all about the product of formula itself. This is not an analysis of formula being good or bad or anything like that. It is about the marketing practices that are done by the formula industry. So let’s separate the product from the marketing when we’re having this discussion in this episode.


Marketing a formula is extremely, extremely pervasive. So basically, what the data that they’ve gathered, they’ve done many studies, and I’ll talk about those. And you can go and read this for yourself. But basically what has happened with the formula industry is you know, they’re making $55 billion a year and then they’re spending three to $5 billion of that revenue on marketing their products. Let’s just put that in perspective for a moment. There is no way that any lactation consultant, any hospital, any sort of breastfeeding advocacy group Halachically, you name it could ever become an entity that would come close to being able to spend even $1 billion on marketing breastfeeding. So breastfeeding is already at a disadvantage, as you know, a true option in the marketplace, so to speak, because we just don’t have that kind of money behind us. Right. And we know that this marketing works, we absolutely know that it works. And the marketing is pervasive. And so this isn’t just an issue in developing countries. Although there are some countries where the tactics are much more predatory than they are in some very populated or more economically stable countries, but it is a worldwide problem. And they actually surveyed 8528 pregnant and postnatal women about their memory of seeing or hearing formula milk marketing in the previous year. And 51% of those women recalled a formula ad. Now there’s other forms of marketing besides ads, samples that are given to you by your OB or in the hospital or the pediatrician. Those are another example. And so that actually may not have registered. So at a minimum, at a minimum 51% of pregnant and postnatal women across the world. You know, this is a very large group of women, but over 8500 Women remember seeing ads for a formula. So it’s also important to note that that self reported exposure to marketing is actually highest among women in urban China, Vietnam and the United Kingdom and the United Kingdom has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates as do with those other countries. The other thing to note is that this marketing is high


We personalised. So, Formula companies have gotten really smart, right. And they’ve always been very smart. But they are now using multiple channels and approaches. So they are using social media. I actually didn’t realize this, and I probably should have known this. But they have created support groups for moms, which is very interesting, because, you know, we want moms to feel supported. But if it’s being run by a formula company, you know, what really is the angle of support there. There’s obviously something to be said. They’re using digital influencers, they’re putting on talks and events. Oftentimes, consumers are actually having direct interaction with representatives of the company, the you know, there’s television ads, there’s, you know, ad space on online and all other places. But free samples can make up anywhere from three to 46% of the marketing depending on the country. And letters, promotions, there’s gifts, right, there’s coupons, there’s baby clubs, they have 24/7 helplines. So you’re struggling with feeding your baby at three in the morning, and you’ve got this formula company hotline that you can call to get support. Now, keep in mind, you also have breastfeeding hotlines that you can call, but you’re probably not as aware of those as you are the formula company ones. Right. So this is this is the problem. And the other part of marketing is that they’re engaging health professionals to do their marketing for them. So it’s really important to note that anytime a pediatrician has a specific brand of formula, a sample a formula, a clock on the wall that is has a formula company logo on it, or any sort of educational materials that have the company logo on them, they are engaging in marketing for that formula company, and you are not seeing an impartial health care provider. And so there actually was quite a bit of a discussion about the integrity of science with in the health care community, because if you can’t trust your doctor to give you informed advice and informed consent, so to speak, and you cannot get all of the accurate scientific information from your doctor, then who can you get it from? Right, this is a huge problem. And it’s probably one of the one of the hardest problems to correct. So you can put regulations at a governmental level in place in terms of you know, what someone can say or not say in an advertisement, right, we see that all the time with prescription medications, tobacco products, alcohol products, you name it. And some countries actually have adopted standards to limit the marketing of breast milk substitutes.


Because realistically, if you need a formula, we’re not saying that you should have less access to formula. We’re not saying that you shouldn’t be able to get formula, what we’re saying is, you shouldn’t be bombarded with advertisements for it all the time. Because it starts to plant that seed of doubt, and start to plant that seed of doubt from women. And they actually had actors that were speaking the quotes from real women that they interviewed as part of the study, were things like even DHA, listed on the label for the formula, Ken, were in an advertisement itself, planted that seed of doubt in a mother’s mind where, you know, she would just think, well, that sounds really scientific, you know, maybe that’s something that formula has that my breast milk doesn’t have. And just these little seeds of doubt that constantly get planted, you know, Formula saying well contains, you know, your essential vitamins and minerals. While it starts to plant that seed of doubt of does my breast milk contain that? Right? And so believe it or not, you may be very intelligent and be wise to these sorts of marketing tactics. And it’s not that other women aren’t intelligent, but they’re vulnerable. Right? There’s, there’s this this is how marketing works. It exploits a vulnerability, especially with formula companies, right. So there are so many misleading scientific claims that formula companies put out there. And they use science as a dominant theme in their marketing. They use scientific imagery, language and pseudo scientific claims to promote their product, their positioning, their formula is close to especially close to breast milk or equivalent to it. Sometimes they even promote it as superior to breast milk. And they misuse scientific evidence to infer that there’s some sort of improved health outcome by use of their product. So this is just not true. I mean, there is not a single study that would say that formula is better than breast milk, if it’s actually good science.


So I just want to be really, really clear about that. Now, they are starting to promote a lot of other variations of their products, specifically focused on the allergy and food sensitivity sector. And this is really interesting the is where they, they have seen their greatest gain and market share. And it’s one of those things that parents just don’t have enough information about and neither do health care professionals. So one of the things that I’ve always done in my practice and that we have Nicola tansy on my team who is a registered dietitian, and ibclc is we work with babies who have food intolerance issues, you do not need to stop breastfeeding, you do not need to give a special formula. Most of the time, if your baby has some food allergy or sensitivity issues, this can all be very well easily fixed with just some modifications, you know, on the part of the mother. So, you know, but formula companies are preying on, you know, the mother of a baby who clearly has some signs and symptoms, and the first thing the pediatrician is going to do is to recommend to stop giving the breast milk. And, you know, sometimes they recommend a trial with the formula, and then they give you that sample can you get whatever brands that pediatrician house, whatever rep has visited them and brought these samples, because the pediatrician cannot treat the mother, the pediatrician cannot make the mother their patient and recommend some interventions for that mother.


Now, they don’t refer out to somebody who can help them unfortunately, they just give that kind of formula. So the these doctors are doing marketing for these formula companies, and they’ve been convinced by the representatives, and they’ve convinced themselves that they’re doing something to help the patient. Now, that may or may not be true, but a lot of the time, it’s not true. So there’s a lot of unnecessary use of formula that starts to happen. And once you start on that route of using formula, if you are not educated on good practices to keep up your milk supply with pumping, getting the correct flange fit the right pump, the right comping strategies, all of that, then you’re just doomed to fail. Right. So it’s really difficult for mothers to come back from supplementing with formula and and then work hard to come away from that and then go back to exclusive breastfeeding. There’s also a thing in the formula ads, that they they try to use some aspirational appeals. And this is especially true in other countries, where ads will show sort of westernized settings and use language, like Dutch quality or Swiss purity. And really trying to make this you know, like using this product is something that, you know, makes you more like those wealthier people in other countries that you look up to. And this is really damaging, especially in southeastern Asian cultures, and many other cultures around the world. The ads also focus on how their product could aid brain development and growth. You know, this is really problematic to say that actin contains DHA or other essential nutrients for baby’s brain growth and development. Well, at a minimum, it absolutely should, because what that what nutrition that baby receives, and the first six months year or 24 months of its life, greatly impacts its brain development, breast milk meets those needs. It’s just the formula is playing catch up to that, right, and it still doesn’t contain everything that breast milk contains.


And then the other thing that they’re trying to appeal to the consumer with is a modern approach. So really, they’re leveraging a lot of this inclusivity this inclusive message of male participation and child rearing, that’s frequently shown conveying a modern lifestyle, like nobody wants to exclude the father from bonding with his baby. So there’s a lot of imagery with that. But primarily, their target of marketing is women. And so, you know, there’s these, there’s these vulnerabilities right that mothers have, and there’s a lot of emotion going on at this time in their life, whether they’re pregnant or they’re postpartum. And these formula can companies position themselves as these friendly, non judgmental, supportive entities, and they worked so hard to build that trust and emotional connection with the mother. And you know, these are some some real quotes from women here who were reflecting on their experiences of, you know, receiving being on the receiving end of formula marketing. And one says, I will consider the benefits my baby will get or my real need if I want to promote height, brain, brain development or digestive system, I will find the respective formula. So it’s really this mother kind of, you know, everyone wants to do best for their baby. Right? So she’s like, you know, I will spend more money on a formula that I believe is best for my baby, because one spending more money on an expensive formula helps to alleviate some of that guilt of not providing breast milk to the baby, but to gives you that sense that you’re doing something that’s best for your baby. Another mom said I know


It sounds bad, but my mommy instinct took over. And I wanted the most expensive because I am making up for not breastfeeding her. So to that point about negating that maternal guilt, and then another mom said, again, the comfort milk, I thought that was actually a good idea. You just want what is the best for your baby? Of course you do. And formula companies would like you to think that they are selling you what’s best for your baby. So this is just really an unfortunate strategy. And I’m going to link up this full report so that you can actually go through this for yourself, if you’re interested. I know I have a lot of professionals that listen to the podcast. But I think as a parent, knowing the kind of insight of what’s going on, and how formula marketing impacts families, infant health mothers, it’s very, very important to be aware of this, right? It’s interesting, because someone in the presentation compared formula marketing to tobacco marketing, and I appreciated the woman in the panel who came on and said, you know, there’s no health benefits or necessity for anyone to ever use a tobacco product. So we can’t compare that. And we’re certainly going to turn people away from our argument if we make that sort of comparison. But she did make a good comparison, which was essentially antibiotics. Right? So is there a time and place for antibiotics? Absolutely. But are they overused? are they contributing to antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria? Yes, they are. They absolutely are, right. And doctors are subject to, you know, the marketing that’s done by pharmaceutical reps, and all of that. So if we were going to make some sort of a comparison, it would be something like antibiotics, I think she also gave the example of asthma inhalers.


So there’s a time and a place. Absolutely, we’re not saying that, you know, babies never need formula, or that it’s never the right decision at all. But what we are saying is, there’s too many instances, most of the use of formula in the world is unnecessary, most of it is unnecessary. And that might be a difficult pill for a lot of people to swallow. But it’s true. And you shouldn’t be angry at someone who’s telling you the truth, you should be angry at the people that told you you needed formula, when you didn’t, you should be angry at the formula companies for convincing you that this was going to fix the problems, you should be angry at all of the policy makers who have done nothing to allow you to receive true accurate, informed consent in your infant feeding journey. That’s you should be angry with not the people who are saying, yeah, there, there are problems with formula, because there are its effect. And so again, this is not about the product itself, the product is fine, the product meets a need the product, you know, we are able to sustain the life of infants and without serious complications. In most cases with infant formula. We can’t say that’s true for a lot of other species of animals.


By the way, there are many, many mammals out there who would actually die because there is no good formula for that animal. Right. So if that animals mother dies, or they’re separated from their mother for some reason, and we’re trying to care, but there are a lot of animal formulas that are not sufficient to sustain a life. So we’re very, very lucky. That a lot of research and a lot of time and a lot of, you know, you know, everything that has gone into the development of infant formula, and it’s great that they’re always working to improve it. But let’s not fool ourselves here and think that this can somehow be something that we can even say is close to breast milk or equivalent to breast milk, and certainly not better than breast milk. So these are the problems with these marketing messages. And then back to the problem with the healthcare professionals, right. So healthcare professionals are trusted, and they’re very, very targeted by formula marketing. So in every single country that was looked at in the study, health professionals were reported as the main source of education on infant feeding practices. Now, that’s really problematic, because we know, and if you’ve listened this podcast, you’ve probably inferred by now or heard it on an interview that pediatricians really don’t have any education and breastfeeding. They may have some education and breast milk. But they certainly don’t have education and breastfeeding. And if they’re lucky, they got an hour lecture, you know, in their entire medical school career on this topic. So it’s really just breast milk is good. Here’s why. And that’s essentially the lecture that they get. So these these people that were looking to, for this education on infant feeding practices, they don’t have the education to educate the consumer to educate their patients. But then the formula companies come in and they give them free continuing education credits. They give them you know, dinners, they give them sponsored conferences, they give them you know, actual cash payments. They help these people get published in studies or, you know, whatever kind of incentive that this particular physician or healthcare professional is looking for. So it’s really important to recognize that a lot of the times you can’t actually trust your health care professional


Well, if they’re specifically backed by formula marketing, or they’re receiving those samples, or, you know, not rejecting the visits of the representatives that are coming to do marketing in their offices, so they often can receive commissions from sales, by the way, they can be kind of an ambassador for the company. They get lots of merchandise, you know, gifts, paid promotional trips, all sorts of things. So there’s a lot of behind the scenes that you don’t realize as the patient and as the consumer that’s happening. Now, I actually looked at the percent of postpartum women who received a recommendation from a health care professional to use a formula product. And the highest was Bangladesh, 57%, of postpartum women received a recommendation from a health care professional to use a formula product. In the United Kingdom, it was 30%, China, it was actually the lowest 17% But Mexico was 40%, Morocco is 38%, Nigeria’s 45%, South Africans 22%. And so you can kind of see a trend, you know, it’s hovering anywhere from, you know, I would say an average of 30%.


I don’t have the US fingers on that, by the way. So that wasn’t in part of the presentation, it’s probably listed in the full study itself. So this study is really important, because it’s about women’s voices. There are about 1050 Women in each country over 8500. They chose countries from all over the world to represent, you know, multiple continents and regions. And it’s just just to the point of, we need to understand the mother’s experiences and interactions with formula marketing if we’re ever going to make a change. And so I’m actually curious, as you’re listening to this episode, you know, what are all of the instances that you can think of that you’ve been marketed to by a formula company, either directly or indirectly? You know, is it a paid ad on a web page or social media? Is it a sample that you received in the mail? Is it a sample that you received at the pediatrician? Is it a growth chart you saw on the pediatrician as well, that had a formula company name on it? You know, I’m really honestly curious, a lot of times baby registries are targeted in the US. So it’s really just important to note that, have you ever called a support hotline that’s run by a formula company? Have you ever joined one of their support groups or moms clubs? Very, very curious.


But you know, one of the other things to talk about in relation to this marketing of formula products is what makes it different from other commodities. And so it’s not, you know, I wouldn’t care about these marketing practices at all, except that potentially this product can do harm. And especially especially in light of the recent recall of our that nutrition products.


So Similac, Alimentum, and Ella care have been recalled for contamination with salmonella and cronobacter bacteria. So not just one, but two. And their formula, it’s powdered infant formula, I will put the link to the FDA recall, is manufactured in the US and it was distributed all over the world. So the Canadian government has gotten on board with a recall, I’m sure many other countries have as well. I know it’s turned up in Australia. And this is a very, very, very, very large patch of powdered infant formula that’s contaminated with these bacteria. Unfortunately, even if you do follow the World Health Organization guidelines of preparing formula with boiled water, and boiled still hot water. Okay. So I will also link up those recommendations of how to safely prepare infant formula. Even if you follow that recommendation, it’s not really going to be enough to kill off that bacteria.


there are problems with formula that, you know, these these types of recalls are not new. They don’t happen, you know, monthly or anything like that. But they do happen very often and, unknowingly, you could potentially have purchased a batch of this formula that has been recalled. So that’s just even one of the problems with it. In fact, I had to sample cans of formula that I requested, sometime last year, just honestly to use as milk in any sort of videos that I make, because I’m certainly not going to waste anyone’s breast milk just for the sake of making a video. But to I also wanted to see what is the experience like with receiving that box of formula samples. So I got two cans of Similac. Actually, those two cans I checked a lot number, and they were part of the recall. So I had potentially contaminated formula. So good thing I wasn’t deciding to donate that once I was done with it or, you know, anything like that. So it’s been discarded, obviously. But it came in this really nice box and it had all of these coupons, coupons for services that I could print photos and make baby photo books and sign up for prepared meal delivery. Pretty sure it was like HelloFresh or one of those kinds of companies and just all sorts of little gift cards and coupons for all sorts of other services. Will all of that goodwill goes a really long.


Weighing in getting someone to want to demonstrate some reciprocity and have a lot of trust and, you know, brand loyalty. So that was very eye opening to receive that shipment. But formula marketing is problematic because formula milk can impact the survival, health and development of children and women. And this is not just true in third world countries, this is absolutely absolutely true. And very well developed countries as well. It also disrupts the access to impartial and truthful information and support for parents to make decisions. So there’s, it’s an essential human right, basically, that’s getting violated here, when formula companies are engaging in the type of marketing that they are. And there’s actually something called the Convention on the Rights of the Child and formula marketing violates that. It also disregards the International Code of marketing of breast milk substitutes. And that is a collective document from the World Health Assembly. And it explains these aspirations and vulnerabilities and fears, at the very moment of birth, and the early years of our children for commercial gain. So again, we want to be very clear here, this is about the formula marketing practices. Now women really should be empowered to make decisions that are best for them, you should have information at your fingertips, you should have the right to make a decision about what’s best for you and your baby. But you’re facing challenges, right? So in health care workers were there trying to be supportive of families, but they’re also the targets of this massive industry. And it’s so pervasive that it often goes unquestioned. So there’s just more that needs to happen on a policy level on a systemic level. And it’s really important that we acknowledge that. So I kind of want to just summarize a bit about what’s happening here. And really, the problem with formula company marketing is that informed choices not being given when parents are offered formula, you’re not being given all of the facts. So there is an assumption that is made by the formula company, by healthcare providers, by people at the policy level that you already know, the difference between breast milk and formula. And you may know some of the differences.


But do you know all of them, do you truly understand the risks of giving formula milk to your child, especially unnecessarily, right? If your baby needs formula, then they need formula. And there’s just no no doubt about it. But formula is something that women start to use for many reasons, right? Its lack of good maternal maternal health care, you know, maternal leave after having a child, it’s perceived low milk supply. So they just don’t think their babies are getting enough. I get contacted by clients all the time, even ones we’ve worked with that say, My baby’s not swallowing, and it’s like, well, how do you know how do you know your baby’s not swallowing? Well, I don’t hear it. Okay, but are they having wet diapers and poopy diapers? are they gaining weight? Do they seem satisfied after feedings, I mean, there’s so many other things here, you may or may not know how to listen for an infant swallow. And if the baby is older and bigger, it’s very difficult to hear unless you’re trained to actually observe that and assess that. So a lot of parents will have this perception, my baby’s not getting anything. And I’m like, well, they hung out there at the breast and actively sucked for 20 minutes. I mean, if you if they truly weren’t getting anything, they would not be doing that babies don’t do that. They don’t, they don’t just try for 20 minutes to get milk and not get a single drop. So that’s not how it works. So there’s a lot of misconceptions in regards to breastfeeding. And you know, pumping has kind of come into the forefront here of a lot of mothers feel more comfortable pumping, because I can at least see how much milk I’m making. Which you’re, you’re seeing how much milk you can pump, not necessarily how much you can make. But that’s a whole other podcast episode. And then they can see how much milk their baby is drinking, right? So they have this sort of comfort and that will formula offers that comfort as well. So again, formula has been positioned as an aspirational choice. Very often it’s presented as the more sophisticated option. Think about this when you when you look at imagery of formula marketing, or even just the packaging of a formula can or where it’s positioned in the grocery store aisle.


Are there times where you can see it positioned as the more sophisticated option. Because breastfeeding isn’t a formula. There is no one right way to breastfeed. There is no exact science on how to breastfeed well because every mother is different and every baby is different. But formula, it’s always the same. It’s always a guarantee


Eat, that your baby is going to be getting this exact amount and these exact nutrients. So it often is on even most of the time on a subconscious level, seemingly the more sophisticated option. The other thing that formula companies do really well is they have this messaging, sometimes it’s direct, and other times it’s indirect. And it’s, it’s basically this, hey, hey, Mom, you know, you’ve tried your best. Don’t worry, here’s an alternative. That’s just as good. You don’t need to have any guilt about using our products, because it’s just as good or even better than breastfeeding. You know, if breastfeeding is hard, and it’s impacting your mental health, then it’s time to let that go. That’s what formula companies tell moms, whether directly or indirectly, it’s what they tell moms every single day. And if you go against that message, then you’re going against formula, which is not true, you’re actually going against predatory formula marketing. But that’s what they do. They pit Mothers Against mothers. And they say, well, there’s this raging debate about breastfeeding versus formula. And if you’re not on board with formula, you’re judging formula moms, you’re making them feel bad for giving their babies something they need. How do you know what that baby needs? How do you know it that mom needs? Maybe they needed the formula? And there’s always this maybe, maybe they needed it? Yeah, well, maybe they didn’t. Maybe they used it unnecessarily. Maybe they used it because they’re not supported. Formula is not the answer to the lack of support that moms and babies are experiencing in our world. It is a band aid, it is a bridge. But it is not the answer. The answer is better support with breastfeeding, better education. And it’s on an individual level, it’s on a societal level, it’s on a governmental level, and so on every level that more of that is needed. And it’s out there, the thing that formula companies want to convince you of is that there’s no support for you, we have the support you need.


That’s not true. But again, I don’t have three or $5 billion to spend on marketing, I don’t have three or $5 billion to tell you about the nurture collective, which is my online membership that’s going to be launching here in the next couple of months. That is a complete space for supporting a breastfeeding mother with access to trusted guidance and information on how to navigate the different stages of breastfeeding, how to overcome breastfeeding problems. And a built in support group that is not going to be the wild wild west of Facebook moms groups that most of us already know. It’s going to be curated, trusted, safe, empathetic space for you to get that support that you need with breastfeeding. But I don’t have $3 billion to spend on launching that and telling the world about it. So formula companies have convinced you that that doesn’t exist. Or they’ve convinced you that because they have a free support group, that it’s better than something that you have to pay for. Because it’s free. Well, it isn’t free, because ultimately the formula company is sponsoring it and using it as a marketing mechanism to get you to trust and buy their product. So and there’s a lot of doubt that seeds that get planted, you know that there’s these add on formulas right once once your baby reaches six months, breast milk no longer meets all of their nutritional needs. And so a formula exploits that and says, Well, that’s why we have formula for babies that are six months and older.


Or that’s why we have formula for babies that are a year and older. Which by the way, no infant needs formula past year. So this is something that happens in a lot of Southeast Asian countries, they have formulas for three year olds, four year olds, five year olds, they’re even making adult formulas now. So it’s actually really crazy over there. That’s not really happening as much in the US. But this idea of breast milk no longer meets the nutritional needs completely at six months. Well, yeah, that’s true. No one who is advocating for breastfeeding or knows anything about breast milk or breastfeeding would argue otherwise. That’s why you introduce solid foods at six months. It’s not why you would introduce formula in six months. So it’s always very interesting, you know, and a lot of pediatricians seem to go this route as well, while the baby isn’t very interested in eating solid foods, so let’s give them a formula because we know they’ll drink milk from a bottle. Well, that can be great if there’s an emergent situation happening and we desperately need to get more nutrition into that infant. But then we should be looking at why. Why is this baby not consuming solid foods at a developmentally appropriate age? Do they need some sort of intervention like occupational therapy, speech language therapy, do they have a tongue tie, like what is going on? This baby is not following and meeting all the milestones that would be expected for their age and developmental stage. So formula companies come in and position themselves as the fix to a lot of problems. They leverage that mothers don’t have the support that they need.


If, and they are not providing informed choice, and they are getting others to ignore providing informed choice to you. So I also want to point out, and this was a big discussion with a panel at the end of this presentation, that there should be certain spaces that you are safe from this type of marketing, or any marketing, those examples of those would be a hospital, a birth center, a doctor’s office, right? These are places that you should be safe from marketing. One of the things that I don’t do, and I’ve never done an appointments with my own patients and clients is talking about my herbal supplement unless they bring it up, or unless I truly felt it was appropriate for them. But I will generally recommend the specific herbs in the product, before I actually recommend the supplement 99% of the time, the client is actually asking me if they should be taking my herbal supplement.


And so they have an awareness of it, but I never brought it up, I don’t do appointments with clients so that I can sell my product, they’re already paying for the appointment anyway. But that would just go against all of my integrity as a health care provider, my standard of ethics and my code of conduct and truly my scope of practice, and it would be a conflict of interest. So I don’t do that. But formula companies do that. So you know, we want to have a hospital be a place of getting some acute medical needs met. And I’m not saying that formula shouldn’t be in the hospital. It shouldn’t be. But we should have a lot of different brands. Because babies tolerate different brands and different formulations differently, right. And it definitely shouldn’t be marketed, you shouldn’t be going home with a tote bag provided by Similac or Enfamil. And so that’s a huge problem, you shouldn’t be getting formula samples from your OB, you should not be getting them from the pediatrician, again, with a pediatrician, I think it would be fine. If they did have samples on hand for those emergent needs, like this baby needs to be fed right now. Or you don’t have access to a formula or what have you. But they should have multiple brands and multiple types, if that’s going to be the case. The other thing I’ll say is that right now, you know, it’s February 2022. And it’s been going on for many months now that there’s often a shortage of infant formula in the grocery stores.


Now, just like any other shortage during the pandemic, like toilet paper, or what have you, people see that there’s less quantity on the shelf or they go to a store and there isn’t any formula available. So the next time they find it, they buy extra and they perpetuate the shortage. So part of this is is that consumer perpetuation of scarcity and a shortage. But on the other hand, I don’t know how formula companies can sleep at night, knowing that they’re sending cases of free products around the world, to give away to people that don’t actually need their product. A pregnant mom does not need a can of formula. She doesn’t even have a baby yet. So I have to say that I think the one of the most unethical things that a formula company can do is to give samples to health care providers. And especially when they are treating patients and they’re seeing patients that will not have an immediate need for their product. And they are actually withholding their products from access to consumers that actually need it. So how scary is that if you need to give your baby formula which many breastfeeding mothers do, right. So it’s not like you’re breastfeeding or formula feeding, you may be doing both most of the time moms are doing both at least for some period of time. It is actually very rare that there’s a mother out there who’s exclusively breastfed for the first six months of her child’s life, it’s less common than using both breast milk and formula. So if you are needing that formula for your child for whatever reason, or you’ve chosen to use it, and now you’re you know, you’re repurchasing the product and what have you and you can’t find it. That’s terrifying. That’s terrifying. But meanwhile, Formula companies have no problem to continue to ship sub sub samples to these offices. So I think you probably understand the point of the message, but it is the problem with the marketing of formula, not the product itself.


You know, their formula is I already did a podcast episode on this. So I’ll link that up in it’s called is formula bad? And the answer is no, it’s not bad. It’s not bad at all. But it’s this marketing of formula that is bad. And I love that the World Health Organization came out with a really strong message about this. They did a really solid study a really great presentation on this topic. They actually made a really great video that was very impactful about this particular topic. And we have to start somewhere and and really the tactic they’re taking now is to create a hashtag to create awareness to create videos that could possibly go viral online, and really reaching the direct consumer regarding this because that’s what formula companies are doing.


And so they’re having a really, really hard time with, you know, keeping up with that three to $5 billion a year spend. Because it’s a lot, there’s no way the World Health Organization has that kind of budget, for it really any sort of marketing, let alone talking about, you know, for infant formula. So, I hope that you really got something out of this episode, because it’s a topic that I feel like even as an ibclc, sometimes, you know, I get very, sort of immune to the effects of formula, because so many of our clients use it, right. And many of them have the goal of no longer using it or, you know, just trying to maximize the amount of breastfeeding that they’re able to do for their child. And, of course, our goal is to always match the goals of the client. So our goal is not to get you to exclusively breastfeed, unless that’s a goal of yours. So we don’t discourage formula use. When it’s necessary, we don’t promote breast milk. As you know, kind of the end all be all, if you will, we’re obviously going to educate every single client about why getting more breast milk into their baby is important, and give them that informed choice. But we’re always about giving that informed choice. So to me, you know, I don’t really have a personal preference either way, about what you feed your child, I have a personal preference, that you know, the impact of what you feed your child, and that you make a decision based on truthful and complete information. And that’s really all that the World Health Organization is trying to do as well. So no one here is anti formula.


But we are saying we are calling out these practices of formula companies that are exploitative and predatory, and are damaging to the health of the entire world population. So on a population level, overuse of formula, unnecessary use of formula absolutely contributes to increased infant mortality, increased maternal mortality, and many, many other chronic and acute health care problems. So that’s really the overall message. And I really hope, again, that you got something out of this episode that you learned something that you didn’t know before. And what I would really love to see you do is to one, share this episode with a pregnant mom, if you have the chance, because she needs to understand what’s going on when she receives these ads, or these messages, or these samples, you know, from her prenatal care provider, or any other environment that she’s in to, I would encourage you to sign the open letter to exploitative marketing formula, milk products, the more people that sign this, the better. This is a joint effort from the World Health Organization, as well as UNICEF, and three, just, you know, talk to your doctors about this, you know, and not to have an angry conversation, but just to say, you know, hey, I’ve noticed that, you know, you’re offering these formulas samples. And, you know, unfortunately, that’s a form of marketing that really, you know, is is creating some doubt and planting seeds of doubt in a lot of parents minds.


You know, I’d love for you to reconsider engaging with these formula company marketing strategies, I think that would be beneficial to your patients, you know, seeing if you’re brave enough to open up that conversation, because the more people on a grassroots level that do this and make a change in their community, the more that these formula companies are going to realize this is not a tactic that people want. Right? So right now, Formula companies are seeing that their marketing efforts are paying off. Essentially, every time you accept that product sample, you’re basically telling that formula company, yes, please do more of this. So I would encourage you not to sign up for unnecessary samples, I would encourage you not to take the sample home from the OB or pediatricians office or the hospital, if you don’t need it, I would absolutely encourage you to reject that. Because every time again, you engage with that when you sign up on their email list when you join their moms group. When you join all these things. Unless you are a full on formula feeding mom and you want support from a formula company. It just doesn’t make sense for you to do it. Because you’re just validating their efforts. You’re telling them Yes, please do more of this to moms like me. And so that’s a powerful message that you can send on a consumer level and say, No, I reject that. That is not welcome to come into my space. I do not want your formula samples. If I need formula. I know how to get it myself. Because you do because moms are smart, right? Like, do you need help finding formula? That’s always funny to me. Like it’s available at the 711 down the street from my house. I mean, I live in a populated area. So really, you know, you may struggle but obviously a grocery store has it. You know, I can’t think of a grocery store that doesn’t have it. I’m sure someone’s going to contact me and say, well, the grocery store near me doesn’t carry formula. Okay, that’s a rare one off instance. But it’s very easy.


I get I can go to Walgreens, I can go to CVS, I can buy it on Amazon, I can go to Costco, I can go to Target wherever and I can buy infant formula. It’s not a mystery where to get it, I don’t need help accessing it. Except for if there are shortages, then yes, potentially, right. But I also have an awareness being in the United States that I could go to the pediatricians office and ask for samples, I’m sure I could call them, call them up and just go pick one up from them. I could do that at the OBS office as well. And I could say, Hey, I’m having trouble finding if that formula, I know you have some samples, can I please have some? You know, are they going to give it to me? Probably yes. Especially from a patient there. If you’re not, maybe not. So there’s ways to get it, we don’t need more awareness about how to get it or we don’t need increased access to it necessarily. Again, the recent shortages are a different issue. So just projecting those types of, you know, marketing influences those types of samples that are given can actually go a long way to make a shift in this exploitative marketing that formula companies are doing. So please check out the show notes. Please share this episode with someone that you think it could impact. And I really appreciate you listening to the breastfeeding talk podcast, make sure you’re subscribed on iTunes. I haven’t actually asked us in a while. So I don’t think there are any recent reviews of the podcast. But it would mean the world to me that if you love the show that you go on Apple podcasts and leave a review. Other platforms don’t allow you to do this, but Apple podcasts does. So leaving that five star review helps the podcast get seen and heard by others, and helps our ranking in the parenting categories. So just more awareness to get some free information out there to the families who are looking for it. Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you on the next episode.



Today’s episode is fresh off the mic, covering the latest presentation and report from the World Health Organization on the $55 billion a year formula industry. The marketing practices of formula companies are exploitative, do not provide informed choice, and prey on the vulnerabilities of new mothers. To be clear, we are discussing the marketing of formula–not the product itself.

In this episode you’ll hear:

  • How formula companies market their products (it’s not always obvious)
  • Why formula marketing is a problem
  • The real world impact of overuse of formula
  • Ways we can work to change the problems with formula marketing

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