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Perhaps not that surprising.

QUICK SUMMARY: A new study finds direct-to-consumer messages on infant formula websites overtly discourage breastfeeding.

The websites have more negative messages about breastfeeding compared to formula feeding.

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The new study by Pomeranz et al. (2021) was published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

It was the first study to compare information and portrayals of breastfeeding vs formula feeding found on infant formula company websites. These were direct-to-consumer messages for US consumers.

According to the study's lead author, Jennifer Pomeranz, assistant professor of public health policy and management at NYU School of Global Public Health, as quoted from the NYU press release:

“Many factors influence parents’ decision to breastfeed or use formula, including breastfeeding support and work schedules. But we also know that marketing and advertising play a critical role”

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The study:

The researchers looked at the websites of three major formula brands covering 98 percent of the U.S. market (Similac, Enfamil and Gerber), plus two organic brands (Earth’s Best and Happy Baby.)

The researchers collected the data in 2019–2020.

545 screenshots were captured during the data collection.

An additional 287 screenshots were collected through a second data collection.

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The results:

  • In general, the website content contained more messages about breastfeeding/breastmilk.....but
  • 40% of the website content focused on the challenges of breastfeeding/breast milk, for example, sore nipples, low supply of breast milk.
  • 44% of the website content focused on the benefits of formula, for example, statements that suggest infant formula provides brain, neural and gastrointestinal benefits
  • 26% of the website content focused on the benefits of breastfeeding or breast milk.
  • Twice as many images compared infant formula more favourably to breast milk, than as superior to other brands.
  • Some companies showed images indicating the apparent ease of using infant formula, compared to the implied difficulty of breastfeeding.

According to the study's lead author, Jennifer Pomeranz, as quoted from the NYU press release:

“Infant formula manufacturers’ repeated communication about breastfeeding problems such as reduced breast milk supply or sore nipples, coupled with images of women holding their breasts to breastfeed, implies that breastfeeding is hard, painful work. These recurring messages may ultimately discourage breastfeeding.”

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Marketing tactics

The marketing tactics used by infant formula companies also came under scrutiny in the study, especially the use of discounts, coupons, contact information for sales representatives plus the claims of the health benefits of infant formula over breast milk.

To quote from Pomerantz from the NYU press release:

“These marketing practices directed towards U.S. consumers would be legally suspect in other countries, many of which follow W.H.O. recommendations and prohibit direct-to-consumer marketing of infant formula.” .

In summary, to quote from the abstract:

"Substantial messaging on breast milk substitute manufacturer websites encouraged infant formula feeding and discouraged breast-feeding. Health professionals should discourage their patients from visiting these websites and the US government should regulate misleading claims. Companies should refrain from providing breast-feeding advice and align their US marketing with the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes."

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Article and reference:

NYU press release: https://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2...

Science reference: Pomeranz, J., Chu, X., Groza, O., Cohodes, M., & Harris, J. (2021). Breastmilk or infant formula? Content analysis of infant feeding advice on breastmilk substitute manufacturer websites. Public Health Nutrition, 1-9. doi:10.1017/S1368980021003451 https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-hea...

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