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Adverts undermine breastfeeding

Published in The Food Magazine issue 75
24th November 2006

Yvonne Wake reports.

Mother breastfeeding in public placeCompanies spend around £20 a year, per baby, promoting their products. Meanwhile, the UK Government spends a measly 14 pence promoting breastfeeding for those same babies.(1) 

Selfish breastfeeding mums are costing baby food companies a fortune in profits every year. If every one of the approximately 720,000 babies born in the UK each year were formula fed, that would mean around £350 million in sales for companies selling milk powder, sterilisers, bottles and all of the many other bits and pieces that go along with bottle feeding.(1) And companies are so good at it, what mum could begrudge them the £500 it costs to feed her baby a year?

Ads, aimed at new parents, make claims like 'ColicUltivent anti-colic bottle for ‘breast-like’ feeding'; 'Avent Naturally: proven to reduce colic'; 'Your baby's immune system needs years to develop, that's why we're here to help, by putting prebiotics in our milk, we're supporting your baby's natural immune system. These special nutrients, found in breastmilk, work away inside their tummy.'

These are just a few examples from 364 adverts promoting the benefits of bottle feeding which a Food Commission survey found in just ten parenting magazines during this year's National Breastfeeding Awareness Week.

Of course, the magazines did run eight positive images of breastfeeding that week too. That's all right then, except, of course, the UK claims to support recommendations by the World Health Organization that it is best for the health of your baby to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, and to continue until your baby is two years old or beyond.

Advert with text, 'Who says men can't breastfeed?'Who said men can’t breastfeed? Such advertising promotes the use of feeding bottles in direct contravention of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes.

In a letter we received in September 2006, the Department of Health's Maternal & Infant Nutrition Policy Manager, promised, “The Government is committed to the promotion and support of breastfeeding and recognises the importance of breastfeeding as the best form of nutrition for infants. Breastfeeding provides short and longer-term health benefits for both mothers and infants – that is why we are committed to increasing the number of women, particularly from disadvantaged groups, who choose to breastfeed.”

It is fine talk, but as our survey shows, the Government has consistently failed to take action to vigorously defend breastfeeding against aggressive marketing tactics used by baby feeding companies. They have had a key tool to hand in the form of The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (The Code) adopted by the World Health Assembly, including British representatives, some 25 years ago.

The Code covers the marketing of breastmilk substitutes, complementary foods marketed as breastmilk substitutes, feeding bottles and teats and applies to governments, companies and health workers worldwide.

The principal provisions of The Code include: NO advertising of any products (formula milk, teats, and bottles) to the public, NO words or pictures idealising artificial feeding, and taken with subsequent, relevant Resolutions (implicitly included in the use of the term 'The Code' in this article) endorses exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding up to two years of age and beyond.

However, The Code is not 'a law', but a recommendation. The UK has consistently claimed to support The Code but despite this, successive governments have failed to implement it fully. As a result, companies continually press the boundaries of what they think they can get away with in adverts.

They advertise bottles without even including a 'breast is best' comment, liken the nutritional quality of formula milk to breast milk and offer incentives to join clubs for information on infant feeding.

“Companies should be abiding by The Code and Resolutions independently of Government action, but they aren't. The Government hasn't fully implemented them and the enforcement authorities denounce malpractice to find their scope for action is limited,” says Mike Brady of Baby Milk Action, a not-for-profit organisation monitoring and campaigning for infant health since before The Code was introduced. “It would be simplest if all promotion of breastmilk substitutes, feeding bottles and teats was banned as required, to protect all mothers, breastfeeding or bottle feeding. They have a right to independent information from health workers, free from commercial pressure.”

The next breast thing? This advert is promoting a bottle shaped like a breast. Needless to say, it doesn’t matter what shape the bottle is, we think this ad is still in breach of The Code. 
Baby Milk Action also fears a new European Directive on baby feeding could allow companies to get away with even more, “The Government fought for changes in the Directive, but only got so far. The bad news is the Directive legitimises some idealising practices, such as use of health claims, despite widespread objections from health organisations. Now the UK law is up for review and we are calling for the Government to put infants and their families first and stand up to the European Commission if necessary.”

The shocking number of adverts we found in only ten magazines during one week of surveying is just one way companies undermine breastfeeding. Supermarkets are not allowed to offer price promotions on formula milk, but many do so repeatedly, despite action being taken against them by Trading Standards Officers. Mike Brady says, “Supermarkets seem to apologise, but then roll out similar promotions. In the long run it will save hard-pressed Trading Standards Officers time if they put a lid on this soon by bringing one or two prosecutions, instead of having to trot down to the supermarket every time it happens."

According to figures from Baby Milk Action, companies spend around £20 a year, per baby, promoting products while the UK Government spends around 14p promoting breastfeeding. Britain has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates, not just in Europe, but in the world.

The 2000 National Infant Feeding Survey showed around 69% of mums start breastfeeding but by six weeks it is down to 43% and at six months only around 22% of mums are breastfeeding. The Government has partially released figures from the 2005 Survey, which show around a 71% initiation rate, but figures on sustaining breastfeeding haven't been released. Nine out of ten of the women who stop before six weeks regret it.

In Norway 98% of mums start and around 80% are still breastfeeding at six months. But in Norway, health service support for breastfeeding, longer maternity leave and legal rights to breastfeeding breaks, are combined with much tighter controls over baby food companies.

Aptamil First is here being sold at a discounted price by ASDA in the summer of 2006. This type of price promotion by a retailer is not only banned by The Code but is also prohibited by UK law. This case has been reported to Trading Standards by the Baby Feeding Law Group. 

The Food Commission has recently joined over 30 other UK organisations in signing up to the Breastfeeding Manifesto Coalition. The Breastfeeding Manifesto has seven key demands aimed at making sure the UK Government tackles low breastfeeding rates in a holistic way including: full implementation of The Code, better training on breastfeeding for health professionals, active support for a woman's right to feed in public places and enabling this at work. All MPs have now received the Manifesto,

“More than 70 MPs have already added their support. Over the next few months we are working to achieve mass, cross-party support for the Manifesto,” according to Campaign Co-ordinator Alison Baum, “MPs are here to listen to their constituents, your voice really counts. I encourage you to visit our Manifesto Coalition website, from here you can read the Manifesto and email your MP.

From the website you can also add your own support and email your friends about it. You can play a crucial role in helping us get to a point in the UK where women, irrespective of their socio-economic background are able to make fully informed choices about how to feed their babies and are fully supported in their decisions. This change isn't going to happen overnight, but it is achievable – we can do this together, for future generations.”


Yvonne Wake is a Public Health Nutritionist and Associate Lecturer at Roehampton University, London.

Useful resources

The Baby Feeding Law Group is a coalition of UK health worker organisations campaigning for UK law to be strengthened. Its website contains results of monitoring projects and forms for reporting violations.

For further information on The Code see the Baby Milk Action website at

To sign up to the Breastfeeding Manifesto check out