Boosting Formula Sales and Endangering Babies

A working mothers blog for World Breastfeeding week 2018


By Lorna Thompson

“What if governments had a proven, cost-effective way to save babies’ lives, reduce rates of malnutrition, support children’s health, increase educational attainment and grow productivity? They do: It’s called breastfeeding. And it is one of the best investments nations can make in the lives and futures of their youngest members – and in the long-term strength of their societies.”

– Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director


As part of the Global Health Governance Programme, I work with a dynamic multi-cultural team who conduct health policy research all over the world. I am also a mother who has breastfed my two children and the above quotation makes perfect sense to me. I feel very passionately about breastfeeding and both of my children were breastfed so I know first-hand the immense health benefits it can bring. With this week being the World Breastfeeding Week, I decided to write about a recent incident around this simple yet life-saving act of breastfeeding.   

Trump’s Comments 

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Donald Trump’s comment on Twitter completely stopped me in my tracks and encouraged me to speak up about just how wrong he is. He has stated that people in developing countries need access to formula because of poverty and malnutrition. This is the complete and utter opposite of the truth. Formula definitely has a place for the small minority of women who genuinely cannot breastfeed, or who make a choice to for their own reasons, but in a country where women don’t have access to clean water and sterilising equipment babies are going to die. Thousands of them.

Donald Trump tweeted on July the 9th. On July 8th, the US did not support a UN Resolution on Breastfeeding. One example of the US force during the resolution debate:

The Americans were blunt: If Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid. The Ecuadorian government quickly acquiesced.
The intensity of the administration's opposition to the breastfeeding resolution stunned public health officials and foreign diplomats, who described it as a marked contrast to the Obama administration, which largely supported WHO's long-standing policy of encouraging breastfeeding.

It seems odd that Trump is stating that people suffering from poverty need access to formula-does he propose supplying these people with formula free? The sales of infant formula in the USA have been steadily declining and in recent years, lower income countries have been targeted for sales. In the 1970’s a scandal arose involving sales reps dressed as nurses handing out out free samples of formula to mothers at hospitals in poverty-stricken cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The mothers were instructed that formula was best for their babies. The mothers trusted these reps and started on the formula instead of breastfeeding their babies, and then were unable to feed their babies themselves.

United States Agency for International Development official, Dr. Stephen Joseph, blamed reliance on baby formula for a million infant deaths every year through malnutrition and diarrheal diseases. Playing into undernourished women's fear of harming their newborn was a "confidence trick," said War on Want – the Global Justice group. When these women felt fear, pain or sadness, their milk would dry up as a result. 

The Evidence on Breastfeeding

Breast milk is the most inexpensive way to feed your baby. It does not cost anything and it does not even matter if the mother’s diet is rich in nutrients as the breast milk will still be. It is the most amazing natural food there is and adapts to the babies needs and even the climate.

It is a fact that breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival. Here are 10 facts by the World Health Organization on why breastfeeding is so important. 

Encouraging and supporting breastfeeding is the best investment a country can make. It has multiple benefits for mothers and babies including reducing the risk of breast and ovarian cancers, high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It boosts the child’s immune system; helps prevent or reduce numerous childhood diseases and can even boost intelligence.

Breastfeeding is something you have to do from the start otherwise the milk supply will run out and the baby will be unable to latch on to the nipple if it has been used to using a bottle.

Early and uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact between mothers and infants should be facilitated and encouraged as soon as possible after birth.
All mothers should be supported to initiate breastfeeding as soon as possible after birth, within the first hour after delivery.
Mothers should receive practical support to enable them to initiate and establish breastfeeding and manage common breastfeeding difficulties.

Recommendations Moving Forward 

So what does the future hold after Trumps comments?

Here are three strong recommendations:-

  1. WHO and UNICEF should show moral leadership and push for a global treaty to stop the pressure put on local governments to protect interests of formula companies. Instead all hospitals could be encouraged to become “baby friendly”

  2. There needs to be better support for women in Lower and Middle Income countries to breastfeed. Multifactorial determinants of breastfeeding need supportive measures at many levels, from legal and policy directives to social attitudes and values, women's work and employment conditions, and health-care services to enable women to breastfeed

  3. Better regulations of marketing from Formula companies. Perhaps formula could be provided free of charge by a pharmacist to those who really need it and this way it can be regulated and the mothers shown how to use it properly and not dilute it and endanger their babies.

While I do not think that breastfeeding is easy and indeed can be impossible for a small number of mothers, there should not be a marketing push to use formula where it is not safe for women in certain parts of the world.