In a nutshell: How the history of formula has caused today’s low breastfeeding rates

Where formula began

Formula was first invented in the early 1800’s as an emergency measure to feed babies who would have otherwise starved, after it was noticed that babies who were fed unaltered animal milks tended to die. Then came the first commercial formula, in the 1860’s. Again, this was mainly reserved for babies who would otherwise starve, but as this formula started making a bit of money, other companies such as Nestle began making and selling formula too, and marketing it as ‘virtually identical to mother’s milk’ (which it definitely wasn’t).

As commercial formula gained popularity and babies started succumbing to scurvy, rickets and infections at an alarming rate, Physicians were concerned about the fact that commercial formula was inadequate, and developed recipes for mothers to make their own formula at home, which became popular by the early 1900s (not that they did much to stop the scurvy and rickets). By 1910 evaporated milks became readily available, and by the 1930’s, as more women started entering the workforce, homemade evaporated milk formulas (like the one in this photo) started to become the norm, with orange juice and vitamins added to help prevent the worst of the health issues. By the 50’s, over 50% of babies were formula fed.

Putting profits before health

Between the 1950’s and 1970’s, formula companies began aggressive marketing campaigns to increase profits, massively exaggerating the supposed health benefits of formula over breastmilk and essentially paying Dr’s to advertise their product as a healthy alternative. Breastfeeding became largely seen as ‘dirty’ and by 1970 only 25% of babies were breastfed at birth and commercial formulas were the most popular choice.

During the 1970’s, formula companies increased their marketing in third world countries, where birth rates were higher so more profits could be made. This ultimately lead to the death of an estimated 1.2million children. Organised protests such as the Nestle Boycott called for an end to unethical marketing, and the WHO code for the marketing of breastmilk Substitutes was brought into place in 1981 in an attempt to ensure that formula is only used when necessary, as it was first intended to be.

Breastfeeding today

Today, the formula industry is a multi billion dollar business. Despite our advanced technologies and scientific knowledge, formula companies are still unable to imitate human milk closely enough to avoid causing infant morbidity and mortality (though what we have today is thankfully significantly better than what we started with). Formula companies still exaggerate the benefits of artificial feeding and are frequently found to be breaching the WHO code for ethical marketing.

Despite the fact that we have known since the 1700s that a mother’s own milk is the healthiest option all round, and despite the fact that the WHO have been recommending for decades that all babies should be breastfed for at least 2 years, only 1% of babies in the UK are exclusively breastfed at 6 months, and only 0.5% are receiving any breastmilk at 12 months. Some women chose to use formula because that’s what they want to do, and that is absolutely fine! But 80% of women who stop breastfeeding before 6 weeks wanted to keep going, but felt unable to do so. Only an estimated 1-5% of women are psysically unable to breastfeed, or have a baby who is physically unable to breastfeed. The issue is lack of support and unethical marketing of formula.

Formula milks are a tremendous resource which save lives for those who need it, but given all the trouble that they’ve caused, Isn’t it about time our governments started doing more to restrict formula marketing and fund more support for mothers who want to breastfeed?

Baby milk action: the Nestle Boycott

The Journal of Perinatal Education: A History of Infant Feeding, 2009

The WHO code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes

UNICEF baby friendly initiative: cuts that cost

Breast or formula: the facts

Breastfeeding support resorces

Boobie Babies on Facebook

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