The World Health Organization (WHO) is on a crusade against promoting infant formula, calling for a cessation of influencers endorsing these products on social media platforms. While the WHO claims this move is driven by a desire to protect public health and uphold the integrity of infant feeding practices, it is essential to critically examine the potential consequences of such stringent regulations, particularly on mothers’ choices and the accessibility of crucial information.
The case against formula milk
The WHO argues that promoting formula milk could undermine breastfeeding, a concern rooted in the belief that breast milk is the optimal choice for infant nutrition. While the choice to breastfeed is undeniable, it is equally essential to acknowledge that formula milk is a life-saving alternative for numerous parents and a convenient choice for others. For many women, especially those who can’t breastfeed or are self-employed and need to return to work promptly, formula feeding might be the only feasible option. And this does not even consider the gained sleep and infant happiness of quickly being able to feed.
The Promotion of Breastfeeding Intervention Trial (1) (PROBIT) aimed to assess the impact of a breastfeeding promotion intervention on children’s health at 6.5 years. The trial, involving 17,046 infants from 31 Belarusian maternity hospitals, showed that the intervention significantly increased exclusive breastfeeding at 3 months compared to the control group. However, despite this, there were no notable effects on the children’s height, body mass index, adiposity measures, or blood pressure at age 6.5. The study suggests that previous observational studies linking breastfeeding to reduced obesity and chronic diseases may be influenced by confounding factors and biases. The results emphasize the need for caution in attributing health benefits solely to breastfeeding, indicating that other factors may contribute to the observed associations.
The science behind infant formula is clear: it can be a healthy and nutritious choice for infants when breastfeeding is not possible or practical. Numerous studies (2) support the notion that formula for healthy infants is as healthy as breast milk. By ignoring this scientific evidence (3), the WHO risks imposing a one-size-fits-all approach that does not consider mothers’ and families’ diverse circumstances and needs.
Although the evidence is clear when it comes to breastfeeding and infant formula don’t show different outcomes for the child’s health, the WHO states (4):
“Formula milk marketing represents one of the most underappreciated risks to the health of infants and children. But while exclusive breastfeeding for babies 6 months and younger has increased only marginally over the past two decades, the sales of formula milk have nearly doubled. Scaling up breastfeeding could prevent an estimated 800 000 deaths of children under the age of five and 20 000 breast cancer deaths among mothers each year”
The recent call (5) to ban influencers from discussing different formula brands further raises concerns about limiting consumer information. In an era where social media plays a pivotal role in shaping public opinion, silencing voices that provide diverse perspectives on infant nutrition could deprive parents of valuable insights.
A blanket ban on formula promotion may inadvertently create a culture of fear around formula feeding, stigmatizing parents who make this choice out of necessity or personal preference. Furthermore, the WHO’s emphasis on regulating digital marketing tools, advertising on social media platforms, and influencer marketing is an overreach.
In conclusion, while the WHO’s intentions to protect public health are commendable, the approach of limiting the promotion and discussion of infant formula needs to stop. Balancing breastfeeding promotion with the acknowledgment of formula as a valid and necessary choice is essential for empowering mothers to make informed decisions based on their unique circumstances and preferences. It is crucial to strike a balance that supports both breastfeeding and formula feeding, respecting the diverse needs of families around the world.
By 국립국어원, CC BY-SA 2.0 kr, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61553520