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New baby blues – why infant formula companies want you to feel like a bad parent

New baby blues – why infant formula companies want you to feel like a bad parent
Crying, colic and irregular sleeps are just part of being a baby, but formula companies are playing on parents’ worst fears to pathologise fussy babies – and get their parents to shell out big bucks on baby formula. (Photo: William Fortunato / Pexels)

Junk science, bottled at the source. New research shows baby and child formula corporations are coining it when it comes to playing on families’ worst fears with poor evidence to back it.

Can high-priced baby formula really help your baby – and you – get a better night’s sleep? New research says it’s doubtful – but that’s not stopping formula companies from claiming this and more to boost sales, reveals research released on Wednesday. Now, some scientists say the world needs a new legal treaty to stop unscrupulous advertising.

Blubbering, for babies, is normal.  

“Crying is strongly based on our evolutionary history to ensure infant survival and that adults will be on call for the baby,” explains Professor Linda Richter of the University of the Witwatersrand, who is also the director of the university’s Centre of Excellence in Human Development. “If a baby didn’t cry, it wouldn’t have any signalling capacity to ensure care.” 

Still, in a modern world full of movies and #MomLife influencers, unrealistic expectations about parenthood – and a lack of support – are leading many families to read fussy babies and sleepless nights as a sign of failure. And infant formula companies are cashing in on this.

“Every mother’s absolute preoccupation is watching the baby and then trying to interpret the baby’s behaviour and to respond adequately to it,” Richter says. “But there’s so much normative pressure about producing the ‘perfect baby’ who rolls over at five weeks rather than seven, for example… that the idea becomes, ‘Well, my baby’s crying too much – they must have a cow’s milk or breastmilk allergy’.”

In the UK, an epidemic of overdiagnoses of baby milk allergies – fed in part by infant formula influence – led to a 500% increase in prescriptions for speciality infant formula in just a decade, a 2018 British Medical Journal investigation found. 

Richter concludes: “The anxiety that new parents feel? This entire marketing structure has been built on it.”

Spit happens: It may not be great for the ’gram but it doesn’t make you a bad parent

Infant formula producers are increasingly portraying typical behaviours like crying, fussiness and irregular sleep as medical reasons to switch babies from breastmilk to formula, according to a three-part research series published in The Lancet medical journal on Wednesday. The studies were co-authored by more than two dozen researchers, including Richter. As a result, manufacturers are now claiming that infant formulas can make babies calmer, better sleepers, and even smarter despite the lack of scientific evidence to back these assertions, they write.

In the series, researchers argue that countries should be doing more to dissuade sales, such as shifting to plain packaging for infant and toddler formulas – much like some nations have done with cigarette packaging to curb smoking. In South Africa, experts say the government should be doing more to support new parents, including linking them with trained healthcare workers, providing mandatory paid maternity leave and introducing a basic income grant. 

BBC presenter Dr Chris van Tulleken explains why healthcare workers play an influential role in selling infant formula despite its risk in this 2022 video

The Lancet research comes on the heels of a 2022 study that revealed that some private hospitals in South Africa are allegedly paid to promote certain formula milk products. This is despite a 1981 World Health Organization (WHO) international marketing code on breastmilk substitutes that bans infant formula promotion. Still, the code remains voluntary, points out co-author and WHO scientist Nigel Rollins. 

South Africa banned infant formula ads locally in 2012.

Read in Daily Maverick:Meet the citizens policing the child health policy government can’t

Globally, researchers say the world needs a new legal treaty to end exploitative formula-milk marketing and prohibit lobbying.  

“The sale of commercial milk formula is a multibillion-dollar industry which uses political lobbying – alongside a sophisticated and highly effective marketing playbook – to turn the care and concern of parents and caregivers into a business opportunity,” warned Rollins. “It is time for this to end.”

You’re one of these three types of parents, according to the formula industry

Formula companies have got wise to infant formula advertising bans, instead creating similarly branded milks for toddlers, older children and even pregnant people – establishing brand loyalty even before a child is born, researchers write in new The Lancet series.

And today, the new research shows, speciality milks exist for nearly every worry a parent can have about a baby – from allergies to mood. 

Read in Daily Maverick:Infant formula firms are using unwitting doctors and nurses to boost sales

“Marketing identifies, exaggerates and heightens what are perceived problems, and it presents its product as the solution – and that hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years,” Rollins says. “But the infant formula marketing playbook has become much more sophisticated: it’s much more agile, and it’s much more responsive. It’s deploying digital systems which means it’s able to track and follow sentiments in real time.”

Using data like this, one major formula company, researchers found, divides parents into three types: those primarily worried about their baby’s future ambition; those who care if their baby is happy right now, and “cocooning, protective parents”, Rollins and others write in The Lancet. 

Once formula firms have you figured out, scientists say, you’ll begin receiving tailored ads for specialised milks that will purportedly make your baby more intelligent, more comfortable, and a better sleeper.

You’re buying what they’re selling, but science is not backing formula claims

But when researchers dug into these claims as part of The Lancet series, they found they were not supported by rigorous scientific evidence. 

These fictional cans of formula mimic the marketing patterns seen today in many grocery store isles in which firms say their products can help boost babies’ intelligence, provide comfort or promote sleep. In a new study published in The Lancet, scientists found these claims were not supported by rigorous scientific evidence. (Image: The Lancet)

These fictional cans of formula mimic the marketing patterns seen today in many grocery store aisles in which firms say their products can help boost babies’ intelligence, provide comfort or promote sleep. In a new study published in The Lancet, scientists found these claims were not supported by rigorous scientific evidence. (The Lancet)

“The formula milk industry uses poor science to suggest – with little supporting evidence – that their products are solutions to common infant health and developmental challenges,” Richter explained. “Labels use words like ‘brain,’ ‘neuro’ and ‘IQ’ with images highlighting early development, but studies show no benefit of these product ingredients on academic performance or long-term cognition.”

In a shame-based economy, it’s not about what you’re selling – it’s about how you’re selling it

Hunger and lack of paid maternity leave are just two reasons why exclusive breastfeeding remains low in South Africa, says University of the Western Cape’s Chantell Witten.

Hunger and lack of paid maternity leave are just two reasons exclusive breastfeeding remains low in South Africa, says the University of the Western Cape’s Chantell Witten. 

 Aggressive marketing is helping more parents opt for formula. Globally, only about half of young children worldwide are breastfed, according to WHO guidelines that say babies should receive nothing but breastmilk – not even water – for the first six months. After that, infants should continue to receive breastmilk in addition to other foods until at least two years of age.

Because breastfeeding has been shown to protect babies – and mothers – from disease, The Lancet research estimates the world’s overreliance on formula costs nearly R4.4-trillion ($250-billion) as a result of deaths and diseases that could have been prevented. 

Meanwhile, commercial formula companies bring in about R968-billion in global profits each year – about 5% of which is spent on marketing. 

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

But in South Africa, a lack of mandatory paid maternity leave, unemployment and hunger can all prevent women from being able to breastfeed, cautions Dr Chantell Witten, lead of the Infant and Young Child Feeding Advocacy Project at the University of the Western Cape’s Centre of Excellence for Food Security.

As part of a 2020 study published in the International Breastfeeding Journal, Witten interviewed nearly 200 new mothers. About 40% lived in households earning less than R2,900 a month, and a similar proportion showed signs of depression. Women in Witten’s study often reported being worried that they would transmit their hunger to their babies through breastmilk.

“The minute the mother is aggravated, a baby can feel that – the mums in my study completely internalised this,” Witten told Maverick Citizen in 2022. “When they were breastfeeding, women would say, ‘I feel hungry. So I’m literally feeding my child my hunger’.” 

Fewer than one in five women in her research exclusively breastfed their babies for the WHO-recommended six months. 

In some ways, Witten says, the women are right. “Hunger is actually a trauma to the body – it elevates your cortisol, which is the stress hormone,” she explains. “Those stress hormones have been found in breastmilk.” But although cortisol levels in breastmilk can fluctuate depending on the mother’s stress, it is not known what, if any, impact this has on babies. 

Both Witten and Richter say that the introduction of a basic income grant could help give women the confidence to breastfeed. Richter adds that although South Africa’s public healthcare system provides people with prenatal vitamins, this kind of nutritional support does not exist for lactating mothers. Meanwhile, the country’s child grant comes too late to help safeguard infants’ health. 

Last, the pair say more needs to be done to train clinic staff, including community healthcare workers, to help support often single mothers through their babies’ wails and colics if breastfeeding rates are going to improve. 

Globally, authors of The Lancet series say the world needs more than a voluntary code to keep companies in line. 

“Formula milk companies chose to disregard the guidance and lobby at every opportunity to weaken regulation,” co-author and United Nations University Professor David McCoy warned. “We need a stricter international legal treaty on the marketing of milk formula… with obligations for senior public officials to divulge meetings with lobbyists and requirements for scientific organisations to disclose funding sources and members of expert advisory groups. 

“More generally, the global and public health community must also be much more critical about public-private partnerships that enable or tolerate conflicts of interest.”

In the meantime, Rollins says the pushback on aggressive formula marketing should not be mistaken for a pushback against the women who use it.

“It’s true that breastfeeding’s impact on health cannot be matched by formula products but… for many women, the use of formula is a matter of preference. For others, it’s constraints in terms of work,” he tells Maverick Citizen. “The criticism of formula marketing is not a criticism of women or their decisions or their circumstances.” 

He concludes: “But women should be empowered to make choices about infant feeding which are informed by accurate information free from industry influence.” DM/MC


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Nanette JOLLY says:

    A seed doesn’t grow without fertile soil and water. Formula companies have fertile soil in health care professionals who get ZERO training in breastfeeding, and the normal behaviour of breastfed babies. This is inexcusable: if they only learned in their six years at medical school that if there are problems in breastfeeding, there are solutions that do not involve formula. It would be nice if they knew those solutions, but if they just knew that there are solutions, and that they can refer mothers to someone who knows them, it would help a lot. That would take 5 minutes out of the six years training. If 60 minutes were available, they could learn almost every solution to problems with breastfeeding. La Leche League Leaders and Lactation Consultants can help, but rarely get referrals from health care professionals. The last mentioned get their infant feeding “education” from formula reps. Formula increase morbidity and mortality, both short and long term. The industry makes sure we all know “breast is best”. So that we all, knowing we are not rich or lucky enough for the best of anything, accept that formula is normal…..

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