"Women can't get adequate information about infant formula in Australia, and that is totally anti-feminist."


We like to think mums are pretty dumb, don’t we?

Well, you might not. I don’t. But there’s a paternalism out there that assumes mums are idiots and can’t be trusted to make good decisions for their children.

I see it often. In the media releases and PR pitches that flood my inbox. The car companies who think mothers need to be reminded to keep their children safe around vehicles, as if that wasn’t constantly uppermost in mind. The toy companies that encourage mothers to put their child’s development first as if we weren’t regularly checking they were hitting their milestones.

And, unhappily, I see it the way we regulate infant formula marketing.

In Australia, because we’re a signatory to the World Health Organisation’s International Code of Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes, the way infant formula is presented to the market is carefully controlled.

The Marketing in Australia of Infant Formula Agreement prohibits formula companies from advertising products for babies under the age of 12 months. Formula companies are not allowed to make claims about or discuss the benefits of their formula products. Formula companies must include information about the supposed superiority of breastfeeding, and the apparent risks and costs inherent to feeding a baby formula.

But the thing is, the WHO code and the MAIF Agreement start from a position that mothers are idiots.

The Code and the Agreement are anti-feminist, and here’s why.


They assume that women are not intelligent enough to critically analyse and interpret advertising and marketing material.

They’re predicated on the idea that breast is best, and that’s just not the case. Not in every situation and not for every woman.

They prevent women who need to understand the pros and cons of different infant formula products from easily accessing information that would help.

And they entrench the stereotype that a good mother breastfeeds and a bad mother does not.

The first time my baby had formula devastated me.

It’s a moment I’m likely never to forget.

I was sitting in a chair next to a hospital bed, three and a half days after a caesarean section. I was tired, hormonal and sick with fear.

My baby was a pale shade of yellow, a symptom of the jaundice that was threatening to encompass his tiny body. He hadn’t had a thing to drink since he was born.

A kindly young midwife stood in front of me. She had just weighed him and he’d lost more weight than anyone was really comfortable with. His sodium levels were creeping up – a potentially dangerous situation.

She gently asked me, “the paediatrician has asked if you would be comfortable topping him up with formula.”

Alys' children, William and Claire were both almost entirely formula fed. Image supplied.

An overwhelming and choking sensation rose up in me. I thrust the baby at her, brought my knees up to my chest and wailed with heartbroken sobs. In that moment, three days into my journey as a mother as I could feel was failure. I couldn't do the one thing everyone had said would come completely naturally to me.


After I calmed down, the midwife prepared a bottle and fed my baby as I sat quietly coming to grips with what was happening.

In the end, that baby boy never latched onto my breast. I'm not really sure why, small nipples, frustration, stress on the part of both of us. Perhaps I didn't really want to keep trying. Who knows?

I pumped for 10 days before I realised that my milk was likely never going to come in. And that was that.

I was a formula feeder and convinced that I was a terrible mother, that my baby and I would never bond and that he'd grow up dumb, fat and sick and that all of our money would be sucked down along with the milk.

Because that's all the information you get about formula from the health system, and formula companies aren't allowed to tell you much more.

No one tells you how to choose a formula. No one tells you what to look for. No one tells you what's in formula. No one tells you how to make up a bottle or how to feed it to your child.

Literally the only information you will get from health professionals is that formula will make your baby stupid and overweight and that it's an inconvenient expensive option that will cause irreparable damage to your relationship with your child.


Alys with her son, William. "I thrust the baby at her, brought my knees up to my chest and wailed with heartbroken sobs." Image  supplied

You need some regulation, but right now it's over reach.

The WHO Code regulating the marketing of formula was declared in 1981 in order to promote good infant nutrition.

At the time, the formula industry was acting completely reprehensibly in many areas of the world. We should be quite clear about that. Formula was being promoted as being a scientific product and therefore superior to a natural alternative. Women were being duped but huge multinational companies determined to make a quick buck.

The distressing stories about formula dilution, the lack of clean water available in many communities to make up a bottle, formula companies that used stand over tactics against vulnerable women and their babies in hospitals; they're not urban legends. These things absolutely happened and it's right that we prevent them from occuring again.

There's no denying that formula marketing should be regulated to do that. But the regulations we have in Australia tip the scales too far and the promotion of breastfeeding is being done in a way that is detrimental to women.

This stuff is dressed up as feminism, but the simple fact is that it's completely anti-woman. To deny women access to the information they need to make proper choices for themselves has no place in modern day Australia.


We need to bring the balance back.

Australian women should be supported to make whatever feeding choices they wish, be it breastfeeding, bottle feeding or something in between.

Mothers who breastfeed should have the right to do so when and wherever they please, and we should all be fighting for their rights and their rights of their babies.

But we need to come to grips with the fact that not all women will breast feed and not all women will want to breast feed.

Mothers who bottle feed their babies should have access to information to help them make an informed choice about what formula they could and should give their babies. They need more than a youtube video to show them how to make up a bottle and they need more than a mums Facebook group to help them find the right bottle and teat for their baby.

But, the idea that the promotion of formula will undermine a mum who wants to breastfeed is pretty insulting. If a woman wants to breastfeed, she'll do it. There is nothing preventing her from doing so. The suggestion that seeing a TV commercial for formula will somehow remove the right she has to feed her baby how she chooses is a nonsense.

UNICEF and the Australian Breastfeeding Association hold up Iran as an example of successful implementation of the WHO Code. In Iran, a country renowned for its subjugation of women, you can only get formula if you have a prescription for it.

I sincerely hope that's not where we're headed.