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The Broken ‘Mom Code’ and its Effect on you and Your Baby

In the transition from newly pregnant, to new mom, to new ‘mom-friend’, we often learn a silent and almost instinctual ‘mom code’ that helps us find our people, our places, and our sanity. These unwritten rules of ‘Mom Code’ might take the form of “I will never judge you for putting the kids in for noon-nap and immediately pouring a glass of chardonnay,” or “we will never apologize for the laundry on the couch and the used breast pump parts on the coffee table,” or even “feel free to reprimand my toddler if he throws his mashed potatoes in your face-no hard feelings here!”

This code helps to establish a non-judgemental buffer around the realities of motherhood, a community mooring that avows that ‘we’re all in this together.’

But did you know that there is a ‘mom code’ that is broken every day?

Chances are you have never heard of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, also known as the WHO Code. Like many governmental things, this code could not have a longer or more uninteresting name, so for the sake of ease, we’ll call it the mWHO code — or the “Moms Want Honest Organizations” code.

So what is it about this mWHO code that you should care about? Moms, listen up.

This code was developed to protect a mother’s choice to breastfeed from commercial interests, which include a company’s preoccupation with selling products and making money. However subtle or overt, these commercial agendas interfere with how we make infant feeding decisions multiple times a day. Here are some examples:

  • You receive a “gift box” filled with coupons, feeding information and infant formula.
  • You read an Instagram, Facebook, or blog post about breastfeeding or bottle feeding sponsored by a formula company (chances are you did and do not even know it!)
  • You receive infant feeding information from your doctor and then were offered infant formula from the same doctors office.
  • You receive an email with a “weekly bump” or “age of baby” informational email from a source that receives money from an infant formula company.

All of these inputs influence the content and quality of the information you receive about how to best meet the feeding and health needs of your baby, even down to how you take care of your own parenting needs.

This is a problem and affects how you parent.

Here is a quick example of a different kind of information bias:

It is finally date night and you are at the bar with your partner. Your partner says “Give us the best tequila you have Mr!” You are really hankering for a good margarita so this sounds delightful. The bartender then responds by saying “Good choice, we have a new brand of tequila that has the flavor of a Mexican vacation with half the calories!” You and your partner both grin with delight. Yet, because this bartender is withholding information, much like how organizations promoting infant feeding break code, he is over promoting the best aspects of his product without adequately disclosing the negatives. As he hands you your margarita, you are thinking you are sipping the latest, greatest and healthiest tequila out there; what you are really drinking is the only option that the bar advertised that is also filled with water, a sugar substitute that has been banned from use in the US, and has been shown to make certain people sick

So what are we getting at?

We aren’t saying that choosing to offer formula is wrong or harmful. However, doing so under the guise of biased or impartial information can subconsciously inform our decision making, sometimes to a negative end.

The goal of the mWHO Code is to protect mothers from the risks of false advertising, ultimately leaving the decision of whether or not to use formula up to her and her providers.

It is not “anti-formula”—rather, it encourages breastfeeding first with the use of formula when necessary. The choice should be free of outside influence from marketing strategies. The mWHO code aims to empower mothers to make their own decisions for their babies.

What practices are regulated under the mWHO Code?

  • Formula companies should not advertise to the public.
  • Formula companies should not give free samples to mothers or healthcare workers.
  • Marketers should not use language or imagery that “idealizes” the use of formula over breastmilk.
  • Guess what, because this ‘Mom Code’ is so badly violated, when companies state that components in infant foods is “the same as” “or just as healthy as” something else—it is best to do due diligence in researching this before choosing.

What can you do to protect your right to marketing-free decision making?

  • Refuse any samples of formula given out by the company or by healthcare facilities. You can even tell them why!
  • Discuss your desire to breastfeed and make informed decisions with your providers. Ask if they are familiar with the WHO Code and if they refuse to accept samples from companies.
  • Look for companies who have adopted policies to support the WHO Code. In the U.S., the WHO Code is self-regulated, but some companies have adopted its practices!
  • You have the right to make the best decision for yourself and your baby when it comes to feeding—whether that’s breastfeeding, formula feeding, or a combination of both!

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Emily Sylvester

Emily Sylvester is the Founder & CEO of Mother of Fact. As a Licensed Registered Dietitian, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, and Mom of 3, she's helped thousands of families in many low/middle income communities feel confident and supported in their feeding journey. Her mission is to eliminate the deficit of equitable breastfeeding & formula feeding help for all households & healthcare systems.
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