Storm in a bottle

I’ve been asked for my views on an incident in which Cynthia Mosher, the discussion board administrator for the Mothering site, banned a woman from selling her formula bottles second-hand on the trading forum.  This decision was, Mosher stated, in accordance with the WHO code of practice on promotion and advertising of breastmilk alternatives (which, for those who don’t know, was set up in response to some decidedly
shady practices on the part of formula manufacturers aimed at trying
to get mothers who would be perfectly willing and able to breastfeed to
use formula instead).  The code also, I have now learned, covers containers designed for getting said breastmilk substitutes into babies. (Incidentally, it does not – despite what Mosher states – mention pacifiers.  Not that I could find, anyway.  That seems to be a rather liberal interpretation of ‘teats’ on the part of Mothering.com.)

This particular interpretation of the code was, apart from any other considerations, a touch ironic.  The bottles in question had in fact been used not to provide a breastmilk substitute but to provide breastmilk itself.  The blogger in question, faced with breastfeeding difficulties that would have had the majority of women reaching for the formula in a heartbeat, had instead become an EP-er – an exclusive pumper.  EP-ing is a near-heroic solution to the problem of wanting to breastfeed but having a baby who, for one reason or another, can’t physically nurse – these mothers actually pump the breastmilk for every feed and then feed it by bottle.  It’s a hell of a job and I am in awe of any woman who manages it, and I can easily see why, after going to these lengths to keep her baby on breastmilk, Estella felt Mosher’s decision to be a slap in the face.

In fairness, I do have to point out that Cynthia Mosher presumably didn’t know the precise history of these particular bottles and was unaware of Estella’s whole EP-ing history, and, thus, her response probably wasn’t intended to be the two-fingers-up-at-EP-ing that it effectively came out as.  I can also see where she’s coming from – we live in a society where, unfortunately, formula-feeding is seen very much as the norm rather than the exception, and this in itself, in a vicious circle, has an unstated but powerful influence on mothers’ decisions over breastfeeding.  I can see the importance of actively trying to counteract this, to change the messages and images permeating the culture.  Within this context, I can see why Mosher might want to keep the Mothering site as a place where breastfeeding is so much the norm that bottles just don’t even put in an appearance.

Having given due and careful thought to these points, I have reached the conclusion that she’s being a narrow-minded jobsworth.

After reading Estella’s post, I read the full Code and some explanatory comments, trying to clarify for myself as much as possible what the Code actually said.  While I recognise that precise interpretation of words like ‘advertising’ and ‘promotion’ in this context is up for debate, it does seem to me that the Code was intended to apply to circumstances where baby product companies are writing advertisements designed to imply that bottles have some sort of non-breastfeeding-related advantage for babies, disregarding possible consequences in the pursuit of their goal of maximising their own profits.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think it was intended to apply to simply making parents aware of a source from which bottles can be purchased.  I don’t think the World Health Organisation or the International Baby Food Action Network actually intended baby bottles to become a controlled substance only purchasable in shady backroom deals between buyers and sellers permitted to communicate with each other solely by exchanging furtive whispers on street corners.

And there’s also another point here that I find quite ironic – namely, the extent to which they’re preaching to the choir.  Mothering.com is a powerfully AP-oriented site that bills itself as ‘a magazine of natural family living’.  In other words, it’s pro-breastfeeding in the way that Germaine Greer is pro-women’s-rights.  So what sort of readership can we expect such a magazine to have?  The sort of women who are passionately pro-breastfeeding, highly informed both about the disadvantages of formula and about the pitfalls that lie in wait to trap the unwary would-be-breastfeeder, and determined to continue breastfeeding even in the face of difficulties, that’s what sort of readership.  Precisely the sort of women, in short, whose resolve is not going to crumble purely because a passing advert reminds them of the existence of bottles.

It’s possible, of course, that Mosher seriously thinks that her readers are so incapable of making their own informed choices on the subject that they do indeed need to be shielded from any mention of Those Objects Not To Be Named, and that going along with this sort of nannying is ultimately in everyone’s best interests.  It’s a lot more likely that her thinking didn’t go much beyond a quick "formula Bad, WHO code Good" that left no room for the possibility that a code worked out in response to interactions between large professional companies and poorly-educated, vulnerable women living in poverty might possibly be somewhat less appropriate or applicable in different situations. 

But I also have to wonder how much of it was about snobbery.  Bottles?  Well, we don’t have any of those nasty artificial things here.  Not on our nice forum.  We are Not That Sort Of Mother.  Mosher may or may not have intended her caveat as an insult to EP-ers and to other women who’ve used bottles for any reason, but I agree with Estella on this one – that’s sure as hell the end result.

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8 Comments

Filed under Grr, argh, Milky milky

8 responses to “Storm in a bottle

  1. sareena99

    First, let me commend every mother who, being unable to nurse, is still providing her own milk for her child. You are doing a wonderful thing!
    Let me also say that although I have read Mothering for many years, I have no financial or other connection with the magazine.
    You wrote:
    >I could be wrong, but I don’t think it was intended to apply to simply making parents aware of a source from which bottles can be purchased.<
    I believe that these passages from the WHO Code are the ones relevant to your concern – a mother advertising her second-hand bottles on the Mothering forum:
    http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/code_english.pdf
    page 8
    Article 2. Scope of the Code
    The Code applies to the marketing, and practices related thereto, of the following products: breast-milk substitutes, including infant formula; other milk
    products, foods and beverages, including bottlefed complementary foods, when marketed or otherwise represented to be suitable, with or without modification, for
    use as a partial or total replacement of breast milk; feeding bottles and teats. It also applies to their quality and availability, and to information concerning their use.
    MY NOTE: The last sentence is the one that applies here – feeding bottles and teats.
    —-
    page 9
    Article 3. Definitions
    For the purposes of this Code:
    "Marketing" means product promotion, distribution, selling, advertising, product public relations, and information services.
    "Marketing personnel" means any persons whose functions involve the marketing of a product or products coming within the scope of this Code.
    MY NOTE: Advertising – as on the Mothering forum
    Marketing a product – as on the Mothering forum

    page 10
    Article 5. The general public and mothers
    5.1 There should be no advertising or other form of promotion to the general public of products within the scope of this Code.
    MY NOTE: Advertising bottles on the Mothering forum

    page 11
    5.5 Marketing personnel, in their business capacity, should not seek direct or indirect contact of any kind with pregnant women or with mothers of infants and young children.
    MY NOTE:
    Yup, again, this applies to advertising on the Mothering forum.

  2. “I don’t think the World Health Organisation or the International Baby Food Action Network actually intended baby bottles to become a controlled substance only purchasable in shady backroom deals between buyers and sellers permitted to communicate with each other solely by exchanging furtive whispers on street corners.”
    Oh my Lord, I laughed quite heartily at this insanely long sentence of yours. Thanks for making my night.
    Oh and P.S., let’s also not forget about how many mothers work outside the home and pump to keep baby on breastmilk @ daycare! Heroic does not even begin to describe these mamas.

  3. Clare Wilson

    I’m baffled. Even if you’re no EP-er, if you breast-feed you still need bottles so your husband can do a feed with your expressed milk. Or even so that you can give a bottle of expressed milk after a night on the lash.
    Although I suppose that’s frowned upon too?

  4. Clare: I don’t know! As I said, I doubt whether Mosher’s conscious thinking on the subject got much beyond “WHO code Good, formula and everything connected with it Bad”. On a subconscious level, I do wonder whether she was making some kind of association of bottles = formula = Inferior Mother who shouldn’t be allowed to advertise here. Hard to tell. It may or may not have been snobbery, but at the very least it was pretty jobsworth thoughtlessness.
    Estella: Thanks! You’re great for my ego. Though, as a former pumper-at-work, I do have to say that I really don’t think it was in the same league as the amount of effort and commitment involved in EP-ing. (Must do a post on pumping at work some time…)
    Sareena: If you look at the initial section of the Code, where the authors state their aims, it includes the statement that “there is a legitimate market for infant formula” and “that all these products should accordingly be made accessible to those who need them through commercial or noncommercial distribution systems” as long as they’re not “marketed or distributed in ways that may interfere with the protection and promotion of breastfeeding”.
    That, I believe, is the key. The whole reason the Code was set up, after all, was because some exceedingly powerful companies were (and are) marketing their products in ways that interfered with the protection/promotion of breastfeeding; and that’s what the Code was designed to prevent. So, no, I don’t believe the WHO intended `Marketing personnel in their business capacity’ to refer to parents trying to sell their old equipment on a parenting forum; I believe they intended it to refer to people employed by a company to sell as large a quantity as possible of the company’s products. I don’t believe they intended ‘There should be no advertising or other form of promotion to the general public…’ to refer to letting other parents know, via a trading forum, that you have some second-hand bottles available for sale to those who want them; I believe they intended it to refer to commercial advertising aimed at making it appear that bottles were somehow a superior alternative for which mothers should abandon breastfeeding.
    But, you know what? We could quibble all day over that and other phrases in the Code, and we’d still be missing the real point. Regardless of whether or not the WHO meant their code to cover this sort of situation, do you think Mosher’s actions were right or wrong? Do you think that selling second-hand bottles through the Mothering forum is going to have any effect on the readers’ decisions over whether or not to breastfeed? Do you believe that mothers should be banned from selling bottles or teats on the forum? And, if so, what are your reasons?

  5. Clare Wilson

    Another thought: surely the WHO code does not apply to selling the actual breast pump itself. And yet, without a bottle to screw on the end of it, the milk would all gush out onto the floor and the pump would be pretty useless…
    In an interesting parallel, I don’t think this is the first time problems have arisen from the WHO’ drawing up guidelines with developing countries in mind, and them being taken too rigidly in the west. I’m thinking of the advice to refrain from weaning til 6 months.

  6. Tracy

    I don’t necessarily agree with Mosher on that decision….however I do have to quibble with the notion that the WHO Code is to protect poverty stricken vulnerable women from evil formula companies. It’s to protect ALL women from evil formula companies 😉 It is not intented to only ban advertising that claims superiority of formula/bottle feeding….but all advertising, because the intent is to avoid the promotion of anything that might interfere with breastfeeding (which to me includes pacifiers but I would have to read the WHA Resolutions subsequent to the Code to see if there is more definition of ‘teat’). The bottom line is that the companies have proven themselves to be unreliable purveyors of accurate information, and that they cannot be trusted, even when they appear to be promoting breastfeeding. I just got a Cow and Gate card in the mail–inviting me to call them about breastfeeding. I have called in the past, in response to ‘call us wiht your concerns’ to voice my concern over the overt Code violations in a)the existence of the mailing and b) the content of the mailing. I report each and every one to the Trading Standards Authority. I mean–it really does baffle me that people would actually consider a formula manufacturing company an expert on breastfeeding advice. You don’t need to be poverty stricken to be hit by this lot: you need a phone, an internet connection, and a huge lack of support in your cultural context that generates a giant intellectual hole, a hole that eager companies will fill….

  7. claire

    Further to Tracy’s comment, I can recommend Maureen Minchin’s pamphlet : Artificial Feeding – Risky for any baby? And of course, her fantastic book Breastfeeding Matters.
    To Estella: It is completely possible to bf and never use a bottle. I have been breastfeeding almost continuously for five years now without using one :o) Why make life more complicated is my motto!
    And Clare, why should Western mothers not bother with the WHO advice to breastfeed their babies exclusively for at least six months? Do our babies not also deserve the best start in life?
    Mothering magazine is making a concerted effort to promote a breastfeeding culture in the States and is well within its rights to refuse adverts for products, whether from companies or individuals, which are contrary to its philosophy. It would be like The Ecologist magazine accepting classified ads for cars.

  8. Eva

    Claire,
    Never using a bottle may have been possible for you, but not for everyone. So it’s good they’re available. And it seems reasonable that they would be available on a site devoted to mothering.
    Sarah,
    Great take on this situation!
    Eva

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