Is formula milk marketing undermining promotion of breastfeeding?

The baby formula milk industry is worth an estimated $55 billion, and a new report launched by the World Health Organization shows how formula milk is marketed to mothers through digital means - undermining work on breastfeeding promotion.

Breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival. Worldwide, over 820 000 children's lives could be saved every year among children under 5 years, if all children 0–23 months were optimally breastfed.

However, nearly 2 out of 3 infants are not exclusively breastfed for the recommended 6 months—a rate that has not improved in 2 decades. 

Digital marketing of breast milk substitutes

The report by the WHO focuses on the digital marketing of formula milk and how this is turned into profits by manufacturers.

The promotion of commercial milk formula utilises social media, and particularly “influencers”, paid promotions, baby clubs and forums, all targeting expectant mothers and those with new-borns.

The commercial advertising of breast milk substitutes and milk formula dissuading mothers from breastfeeding exclusively, as recommended by WHO. Inappropriate marketing of breast-milk substitutes continues to undermine efforts to improve breastfeeding rates and duration worldwide.

Along with overtly condescending advertising and misleading marketing, reinforcing myths about breastfeeding and breast milk and undermines women’s confidence in their ability to breastfeed successfully – report the WHO.

The WHO says there is an abundance of digital marketing around milk formula, with  clever marketing insinuating it is ‘better’ than breastmilk, despite clear evidence that exclusive and continued breastfeeding are key determinants of improved lifelong health for children, women and communities.

Benefits of breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is crucial for mothers and infants not only from a nutrition perspective as  it is safe, clean and contains antibodies which help protect against many common childhood illnesses, but to encourage mother and child bonding. Breastfeeding has also been proven to improve IQ, school attendance, and is also associated with higher income in adult life, as well as reducing the risk of children and adolescents to be overweight or obese.

Breastmilk provides all the energy and nutrients that the infant needs for the first months of life, and it continues to provide up to half or more of a child’s nutritional needs during the second half of the first year, and up to one third during the second year of life.  

WHO actively promotes breastfeeding as the best source of nourishment for infants and young children, and is working with UNICEF and the Global Breastfeeding Collective to increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months up to at least 50% by 2025. 

CABI Global Health has over 46,000 records on the topic of breastfeeding or milk formula.

Further reading:

WHO (2022) Scope and impact of digital marketing strategies for promoting breastmilk substitutes ISBN: 9789240046085


The Lancet Breastfeeding Series papers

Breastfeeding in the 21st century: epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect.
Victora, Cesar G et al. The Lancet , Volume 387 , Issue 10017 , 475 – 490.

Why invest, and what it will take to improve breastfeeding practices?
Rollins, Nigel C et al. The Lancet , Volume 387 , Issue 10017 , 491 – 504