The “Women’s Choice” Myth

October 13th, 2007 by MamaBear

This post is not about abortion. If you want to read about abortion, Google “abortion,” but don’t expect to read about it in this post. Nope, this post is about another “women’s ‘choice’” issue.

Ever heard of Me neither, before about five minutes ago. But after a quick perusal, I now know everything I need to know about it. is a website created by the International Formula Council (an infant formula lobby group). In it, you will find much lip-service about how “breastfeeding is best,” blah blah blah more politics, etc. They have a very craftily worded page dedicated entirely to “Support for Breastfeeding.” They have another one totally about “mother guilt.” (How’s that for political?) …But the main crux of the site is to convince the world that women WANT to feed their babies formula, and by golly, they have every right to, because women have rights! And freedom! And women need their formula! They WANT it! They ask for it! (Sounds kinda like what you hear some rapists say when speaking of their victims, coincidentally enough. Or is it a coincidence…?)

Let me be crystal clear about something: of course women have the right to feed their babies formula if they want to. But I’m going to spell this out just in case my point is lost: the formula “choice” debate isn’t about women’s freedom. It isn’t about feminism. It isn’t about women’s rights or even consumer advocacy. Women will always have the choice to feed their infants infant formula. isn’t about that, though, as much as they want everyone to believe it is. It’s really about rallying support for formula manufacturers in their quest to disenfranchise women and infants of their rightful biological norm by convincing everybody that what women really want (and spend all their time thinking about, apparently) are those “awesome” infant formula gift bags in hospitals. After all, everybody else is doing it. And furthermore, [insert some other contrived reasons here].

To help illustrate this, they have a whole page dedicated to “What do moms say?” Here’s a little gem from that page: “…mothers approve of receiving infant formula samples, and they do not believe samples have much, if any, impact on a mother’s decision as to what to feed her baby…” Replace “infant formula samples” with “free packs of cigarettes” and “as to what to feed her baby” with “to smoke” and see how it sounds: “…mothers approve of receiving free packs of cigarettes, and they do not believe the samples have much, if any impact on a mother’s decision to smoke…” Hmmm…

The thing is, marketing research demonstrates definitively that receiving free anything impacts consumer use, even if the consumer doesn’t believe he/she is being influenced by the free item(s). That’s why companies do it — because it works! They wouldn’t waste their time and precious money on paying to distribute free samples if they didn’t think it was going to result in returns ($$$) on their investment. It doesn’t really matter what the product is, if you receive a free sample of it, you’re more likely to try it (and if you’re a health care worker, you’re more likely to recommend it). For a lot of products, that’s not necessarily harmful, but for a product like infant formula (or cigarettes, or pharmaceuticals), it can (and often does) have disastrous consequences to the consumers. It does not matter if the consumer perceives the sample doesn’t affect them; the fact remains that receiving free samples DOES affect resultant consumer behavior.

What a lot of people don’t understand is that formula manufacturers are very well-versed and well-educated about breastfeeding. Formula executives learn about it, their companies even pay for research on it, so they “know their enemy” (their enemy being their most threatening competitor: breastfeeding) very, very well. Formula executives (those in charge of making marketing decisions) are very well aware of the deleterious impact on breastfeeding of interfering with a newly born infant’s suckling reflex by introducing an artificial nipple, and of separating infants from their mothers. They use this knowledge to push baby-unfriendly hospital practices — which they know will sabotage breastfeeding — to get the majority of their customers by marketing through the health care industry. Magazine and television ads are just marketing icing on the cake for them. The marketing cake for formula corporations is: the samples handed out by doctors during prenatal check-ups, the routine formula bottle-feeding of newborns separated from their mothers that hospital workers engage in every day in hospital nurseries, the free formula gift packs given to exhausted, convalescing postpartum moms, and last but not least, WIC program contracts with formula manufacturers which ultimately encourage formula use (WIC is responsible for over 50% of formula sales in the United States (PDF)). That’s where formula manufacturers get the bulk of their customers, ironically from the very people that should be encouraging breastfeeding the most! Formula executives push to short-circuit the breastfeeding learning process from the very beginning, encouraging mother-baby separation immediately after birth because it ensures them sales in the future — at least a year’s worth of formula sales, per baby! That is a lot of money, and whatever it cost the formula companies to provide the free samples in the hospital, per baby, is easily a write-off, after the first week or two the baby’s parents buy formula. The rest is pure profit (minus the tiny cost of manufacture and transport — miniscule in comparison to the profit), since formula is so grossly overpriced (even the “cheap” powdered stuff).

Recommended reading:

So now you know. is full of marketing lies designed to convince the general public that the formula industry should be allowed to keep marketing to health professionals by fighting to keep formula samples in hospitals.

There is another website also full of lies you should know about: It is also paid for by the International Formula Council to further convince the general public that marketing through health care workers (doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, and WIC employees) is not only OK, but that moms WANT it, and that therefore this woman-unfriendly and baby-unfriendly status quo should be maintained. Absurd, ridiculous, and completely diabolical are words that come to mind when I see websites like this, but what can you do? At the very least they’re open about their funding, which is more than I can say about some researchers who conduct infant feeding studies.

Actually, that’s a good question: What can we do as lactivists to make things better for other moms and their babies? At the very least, we should work hard to get the Breastfeeding Promotion Act passed, which is something every American over the age of 18 can do (link provides ideas and plans of action). Beyond that, it is possible we can beat formula companies at their own game. They “know their enemy.” We should (at least) do the same, so that we become aware of what we’re up against. Knowledge is power. Let’s put the knowledge (power) about destructive formula marketing practices in the hands of women so that they can make truly informed, REAL choices for themselves and their babies. Let’s promote real breastfeeding education so that the formula pushers don’t win.

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18 Responses to “The “Women’s Choice” Myth”

  1. Lesley Says:

    Another site? Oh lord.

    Another reason why I wish I was crazy wealthy…Breastfeeding would get SUCH an AD CAMPAIGN. If only…

    Hey Mamabear, ever get the feeling your banging your head against a wall?

  2. MamaBear Says:

    All. The. Time.

    If I had a million dollars to do what I really wanted, you can bet I’d be using some of it to buy ad space on billboards and elsewhere promoting the heck out of breastfeeding. And it wouldn’t be ugly-ass black and white text ads. They’d be full-color photographs showing women — *gasp* — BREASTFEEDING their babies (all colors). I wouldn’t bother with the whole “cover-up” mentality either. In order to normalize public breastfeeding, I’d make sure the moms on the billboards didn’t use blankets. :P It would be a beautiful thing, very tasteful.

    And if I had many millions of dollars? I’d build my own healthy hospital, where hydrogenated oils weren’t allowed to be sold on the property (no McDonald’s or other fast food) and infant formula would be under lock and key, like a controlled substance. It would, of course, be baby-friendly.

    A girl can dream, right?

  3. halfpintpixie Says:

    Yes we can dream Mambear! We have to :)

    Don’t know if you’ve seen this but even over here in Ireland where infant formula ads are banned and “idealizing claims” are banned from follow-on formula advertising, Cow and Gate are using the web address to advertise all their products. nice eh?

    There will soon be a little pixie-head shaped mark on my wall from all the banging my head I’ve been doing :)

  4. Lesley Says:

    You just wait ’till I take over the world…formula will be free, but you’ll only be able to get it with a prescription. And we’ll all knit, but that’s a different cause altogether ;)

  5. MamaBear Says:


    Wow! Thanks for that link! What an eye-opener! I was really amazed by this quote on the Cow & Gate website: “Breastfeeding is best for your baby and provides many benefits. Good maternal nutrition is important for the preparation and maintenance of breastfeeding. Introducing partial bottle-feeding could negatively affect breastfeeding and a decision not to breastfeed is difficult to reverse. Infant Milk Formula should only be used on the advice of a health professional and the manufacturer’s instructions for use should be followed carefully. Improper use of an infant milk or innappropriate foods or feeding methods may present a health hazard. The social and financial implications of using infant milks should be taken into consideration.”

    I have NEVER seen anything like that here in the US (or in Latin America), but we NEED it. I mean, yes, it’s bad to have any advertising for infant formula, even on a website, but when I tried to read about infant formula, it forced me to tick the little box which said, “Please tick the box if you wish to continue to view information on infant milks,” before it would go to the formula page (which I haven’t looked at yet). WOW. Here in the US, the ads for formula are OUT OF CONTROL, with NO WARNINGS like that. How refreshing to see the WHO code actually WORK!! YEAH!

    We need to get infant formula ads banned here in the U.S. (I can’t believe I’m saying this since I’m very anti-banning of books and such, but marketing of pharmaceuticals and formula is very different from checking out a book from the library, kwim?)

  6. MamaBear Says:


    I’m eagerly awaiting your world take-over… :D (This includes the knitting part — I knit, too, and feel everybody should at least try it. :P)

  7. Chloe Says:

    Th isn’t directly related to your post but I thought it might be of interest. I guess human babies aren’t the only ones who refuse bottles! Check the link for an adorable picture:

    Golden retriever nurses stray kitten

    October 8, 2007

    STEPHENS CITY, Va. –A stray kitten has found a new mother in a golden retriever, who began producing milk for the gray tabby after hearing its cries.

    The hungry kitten, found in an old tire at a concrete plant, refused to drink from a bottle and her rescuers feared she would die. That’s when Honey, the family dog who hadn’t given birth in 18 months, stepped in with her motherly instincts.

    “She started licking her and loving her. Within a couple of days, Honey started naturally lactating,” said Kathy Martin, whose husband, Jimmy, brought the kitten home six weeks ago. “The kitten took right to her.”

    Initially, the family worried such a big dog would be too rough for the tiny feline named Precious. But Honey showed her elation at Precious’ presence, wagging her tail and prancing all over the house.

    Precious now sometimes plays with dog bones, and Honey lets the kitten gnaw on her like a puppy.

    “She thinks she’s a dog,” Kathy Martin said. “She’s really fit right in.”

    © Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

  8. MamaBear Says:


    Thanks for sharing. :)

  9. Jessica Says:

    I looked at the cow + gate site (excuse lack of caps, nak). I like how the only mention of breastfeeding is for 0-3 months and the only articles focus on the problems associated with it!

  10. MamaBear Says:


    Yes, it’s crappy the site even exists, that any formula marketing exists… Obviously people know formula is an option if breastfeeding doesn’t work out; people don’t need to be banged over the head with seductive marketing luring them to formula-feed when breastfeeding could potentially work out… However, what really jumped out at me about the Cow & Gate site was how different and TAME it was compared to American formula websites. OMG, if people in the U.K. could see how completely over-the-top exaggerated the marketing here in the U.S. is, they would probably revolt FOR us!! (I believe people in the U.K. are blocked from seeing American formula manufacturer sites… Please, U.K. visitors, confirm this for me if you can. Here’s a link to an American formula site: Can you see it?)

    Here’s a good question: how come we’re not outraged??? It’s our country, and we are LETTING the formula manufacturers lie to the public by allowing their deceptive marketing tactics to continue. I’m not even sure where to begin with this…

  11. Song Says:

    As my new favorite lactivist quote goes:

    “Those who make claims about infant formula that intentionally undermine women’s confidence in breastfeeding are not to be regarded as “clever entrepreneurs just doing their job,” but as human rights violators of the worst sort.” –Stephen Lewis, Deputy Executive Director, UNICEF, April 1999

    I think most people are not outraged by deceptive marketing of artificial baby milk because our entire culture and society is structured around the right — indeed, the mandate — to get as wealthy as possible, and devil take the hindmost. Lip service and hot air notwithstanding, our culture really doesn’t value babies nor the reproductive, caregiving labor that is required for them to grow into properly socialized adults.

  12. MamaBear Says:


    That was brilliant. Thank you for sharing.

  13. halfpintpixie Says:

    mamabear, from Ireland, i could get into the enfamil link you gave no problem. but i had to sneak into a google cached version of n*stle’s site www. very best baby. com and that one is shocking! what on earth is a “comfort protein (R)” and “nurtures developing minds and tummies”! ? I can’t believe they’re allowed give money off vouchers! madness…

  14. halfpintpixie Says:

    and OMG, enfamil will deliver to your door, why bother with the boobs at all then …. grrr….

  15. MamaBear Says:


    I am surprised you were allowed to see what’s on the Enfamil site… There are WHO violations all over the place! Did you see the illustration of a duck and how half of it is blurry and half of it is clear, and they claim that without their DHA formula, your baby will see the duck like the blurry side?! WTF is that about?! I tried to find the study that proves this to be true, and the one they referenced said NOTHING about eyesight, so where do they get off making such dishonest claims? It’s just snake oil!

    Makes me wonder, though, why Enfamil would allow U.K. visitors to see their site… Isn’t that a violation of some kind? Or do you see a different site from the one I see? Is Enfamil sold in the U.K.? If it’s not, that’s probably why you can see it… And explains why Nestle had to tone theirs down — because Nestle does sell in the U.K…. Veeeeeery interesting.

  16. halfpintpixie Says:

    mamabear, I’ve just seen the duck, that’s mad! And the longer I feed my baby the formula the better her eyesight will be… that would never be allowed here! I’ve never seen Enfamil here but I don’t know too much about which formulas are available here!

    email me a couple of other links, would you, so I can see which ones work here!

  17. MamaBear Says:

    Will do, Pixie!

  18. Baby Milk Advertising « Half Pint Pixie Says:

    […] at The International Breastfeeding Symbol recently drew my attention to some of the advertising that formula companies do in the United […]

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