The pressure around breastfeeding during the covid pandemic is from the formula industry – not health professionals

20 October 2021

Ann Yates, Head of Midwives and Associations Strengthening at the International Confederation of Midwives (ICM)

A recent article stating that Covid-19 is making mothers feel even more pressure to breastfeed has come as a shock to those of us who work in the maternal and newborn health space. Mainly because it is not true. This dangerous narrative works to undermine the ongoing battle by midwives and other healthcare professionals to support, protect and promote breastfeeding while upholding a woman’s right to choose how she cares for and feeds her newborn.

The benefits of breastfeeding are widely known, with studies showing that it has the single largest potential impact on babies compared with any other preventative intervention. Promoting and supporting breastfeeding in the first two years of life could avert nearly 14% of all deaths in children under two, and reduce the incidence of type 2 diabetes by 35%. Furthermore, recent studies have shown the potential of breastfeeding mothers’ milk to develop a robust immune response to Covid-19 vaccines, with the potential to pass on antibodies to newborns. 

The research is also very clear that most new mothers want to breastfeed, yet the CDC reports that 60% are not reaching their own breastfeeding goals due to a lack of ongoing support. This is where midwives and other professionals must play a vital part in supporting mothers to breastfeed. They can provide personalised information and care to build a trusting relationship with mothers that enable them to nourish and nurture their infants.

But at the heart of any support given from midwives to women is the understanding that the decision to breastfeed is a personal choice and it must remain so. Most women can breastfeed, but for the minority who can’t, professionals must provide clear pathways for alternative feeding measures and the Global Breastfeeding Collective is very explicit in the mandate around this. Just as midwives are committed to supporting women in all other choices around their reproductive health – breastfeeding is no different.

The framing of proponents of breastfeeding as ‘pressuring’ or ‘burdening’ is highly problematic because it conceals the formula industry’s anti-breastmilk agenda at the expense of new mothers. . A recent study demonstrates that companies marketing breastmilk substitutes (BMS) are capitalizing on fear related to Covid-19 by using health claims and misinformation about breastfeeding to promote their products. These tactics are not new but the fear and lack of clear information around the pandemic provided an opportunity for these companies to drive profits with no real care for the health outcomes of women and newborns. 

As health professionals, our role is to support women to breastfeed and when this is not possible, to support women in determining alternative methods to safely care for their newborns and infants. Journalists and media outlets covering this topic should understand the sensitivities around this topic, recognising that this is a normal life event most women are able to experience. When we embolden the notion that breastfeeding is a challenge, we strengthen the efforts of formula companies to exploit new mums and their vulnerabilities. This is what all women should hear because it is the truth.