The websites of baby formula manufacturers use messages and images that discourage breastfeeding while touting the benefits of formula, an analysis finds.
The study in the journal Public Health Nutrition is the first to compare information and portrayals of breastfeeding with infant formula feeding on manufacturer websites directed at United States consumers.
“Many factors influence parents’ decision to breastfeed or use formula, including breastfeeding support and work schedules. But we also know that marketing and advertising play a critical role,” says Jennifer Pomeranz, assistant professor of public health policy and management at New York University’s School of Global Public Health and the study’s lead author.
“It is important to understand the messages caregivers are receiving directly from formula companies, whose websites are targeting pregnant women and new parents with marketing claims disguised as feeding advice and support.”
Breastfeeding has many well-documented benefits for infants and mothers. Because breast milk is a complete source of nutrition for babies and can protect them from infections and certain diseases later in life, US and global health authorities recommend breast milk as the sole source of nutrition during a child’s first six months and encourage continued breastfeeding.
Previous research shows that marketing from formula companies can influence norms and attitudes around infant feeding and may use unsubstantiated health claims to promote formula and diminish confidence in breast milk. To prevent this, the World Health Organization urges countries to ban the marketing of formula to consumers; while the US still allows it, the Surgeon General recommended that infant formula be marketed in a way that does not discourage breastfeeding.
Pomeranz and her colleagues analyzed the websites of three major formula brands that make up 98% of the US market, as well as two organic brands, to compare messages and images about breastfeeding and breast milk with those about infant formula feeding.
The researchers found that substantial messaging on the five formula manufacturers’ websites focused on discouraging breastfeeding. The websites actually contained more messages about breastfeeding or breast milk than formula, but much of the breastfeeding content (40%) focused on challenges, such as having a low supply of breast milk or difficulty latching.
The websites were significantly more likely to mention the benefits of formula (44%)—for instance, statements that formula provides brain and gastrointestinal benefits—than benefits of breastfeeding or breast milk (26%). Moreover, manufacturers compared formula feeding to breastfeeding, rather than comparing their brands positively to other brands.
Images on the websites also illustrated the benefits of formula—including the ease of feeding, with babies holding their own bottles—while making breastfeeding look difficult and labor intensive.
“Infant formula manufacturers’ repeated communication about breastfeeding problems such as reduced breast milk supply or sore nipples, coupled with images of women holding their breasts to breastfeed, implies that breastfeeding is hard, painful work. These recurring messages may ultimately discourage breastfeeding,” says Pomeranz.
“Even if websites frame their ‘advice’ as providing solutions to the problems identified, it is completely inappropriate for a formula company to disseminate information—let alone negative information—about breastfeeding to new parents and mothers in particular,” adds Pomeranz.
The researchers identified other marketing tactics on formula websites, including the use of discounts or coupons, contact information for sales representatives, and claims of health and nutritional benefits of infant formula over breast milk.
“These marketing practices directed towards US consumers would be legally suspect in other countries, many of which follow WHO recommendations and prohibit direct-to-consumer marketing of infant formula,” adds Pomeranz.
The researchers urge the US government to strengthen its regulation of marketing messages on formula websites and product labeling. They also recommend that health professionals counsel their patients to steer clear of formula websites as sources of information, given that they undermine public health recommendations.
Coauthors of the study are from the University of Connecticut and NYU.