What is the WHO Code and How Does It Apply to Breastfeeding?

This piece is published with permission from Breastfeeding Task For LA.

What is the WHO code?

The WHO Code is the common name for the "International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes," which was adopted by the World Health Organization in 1981. Recognizing that marketing formula is, by definition, an attempt to reduce the number of breastfed babies, and recognizing that breastfeeding is both a vital public health and economic issue, the USA joined with 118 other nations in ratifying the Code.

What does the Code say?

The WHO Code PROHIBITS certain aggressive infant formula marketing strategies, such as:

  1. Promoting infant formula through health care facilities
  2. Lobbying health care personnel with free gifts
  3. Providing free formula samples to new mothers
  4. Using words or pictures in advertising which idealize bottle feeding

The Code also mandates that formula ads and labels include the facts about the benefits of breastfeeding and the hazards associated with formula feeding.

The Code does not prohibit the existence of infant formula nor the choice to bottle-feed. Instead, it seeks to give all women only pure facts about feeding their babies, free of marketing influence, so that they can make free and informed choices. The Code tries to level the playing field so that the superiority of breastmilk — which has no Madison Avenue agency or million dollar marketing budget promoting it — is not lost in the landslide of formula marketing hype.

Why is the Code important?

The WHO Code addresses the primary underlying reason that many women opt not to breastfeed or try and "fail" to breastfeed in the early weeks — they have been swayed by formula marketing tactics which both subvert and mislead the public.

Aggressive formula marketing reduces the rate of successful breastfeeding in two ways:

  1. Samples and bottles confuse the baby’s ability to suck correctly at the breast and reduce a woman’s milk supply.
  2. Marketing through doctors and hospitals mislead women to see formula as healthy and/or medically necessary.

How can the Code be upheld?

Open any baby magazine; walk into any pediatrics practice. You will see dozens of examples of the WHO Code being ignored. Free samples from maternity wards and pediatricians are routine all over the country.

We need legislation which will give the WHO Code teeth. We need to make it clear that marketing infant formula in ways which mislead women will not be tolerated. Formula marketing practices must not present a stumbling block to women who otherwise wish and intend to breastfeed.

Here are some other ways you can get involved:

The Breastfeeding Promotion In Pediatric Office Practices Program

The American Academy Of Pediatrics offers this free program to provide pediatricians with the latest scientific information on breastfeeding and its management, promotional materials, and strategies for increasing breastfeeding rates in their practices. Visit this site.

Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes in the USA

This resourceful 107-page book draws on the results of the third IBFAN Monitoring Project, IMP III, conducted during the summer of 2000, as well as Code violations reported prior to and following the formal monitoring period. The US national report was written by Masha Walker, RN, IBCLC, executive director of the National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy, Research, Education, and Legal Branch (NABA REAL).

To get a copy, please contact:

National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy, Research, Education and Legal Branch (NABA REAL)
254 Conant Rd., Weston, MA 02493-1756
Tel: 781-893-3553
Fax: 781-893-8608
Email: Marshalact@aol.com

More information on Breastfeeding and the WHO code online:

Reprinted by Pregnancy.org, LLC.