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Infant Formula Marketing: Background Information

Infant Formula Marketing in Hospitals

Background FAQ

Q: How do infant formula companies market their products in healthcare settings?

A: Formula companies use a variety of strategies. Our primary focus in this campaign is the distribution of industry-sponsored formula samples to new mothers in hospitals. These samples come in “discharge bags,” which also contain an array of formula coupons. Some brands of formula offer both “breastfeeding” and “formula feeding” bags. However, “breastfeeding” bags also contain formula and formula coupons!  Between 66 and 72 percent of hospitals in the U.S. distribute these samples, which have been shown to reduce the duration of breastfeeding and lessen exclusive breastfeeding.


Formula companies also market their products in doctor’s offices with displays, samples, logos and contests to win free formula.


Photo of Similac’s hospital discharge bags for breastfeeding (L) and formula feeding (R) moms. What’s the difference?


Photo of Similac’s hospital discharge bag for breastfeeding moms. Contains formula sample and formula coupons.

Q: Who should we be concerned about infant formula marketing in healthcare settings? Why?

A: Advocates for women and children’s health, consumer rights advocates, opponents of commercialism, and those concerned about excessive corporate power all have a stake in this issue.

  • The aggressive marketing tactics of the infant formula industry undermine breastfeeding, which is medically recommended. All leading health groups agree: breastfeeding is best for babies. Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months is the unanimous recommendation of health professionals, based on indisputable research findings.
  • The Surgeon General agrees. In her 2011 Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding, the Surgeon General calls for action to “Ensure that health care clinicians do not serve as advertisers for infant formula…Given the health consequences of not breastfeeding, clinicians should not implicitly promote infant formula by providing venues for its advertisement.”
  • Big corporations are putting profits before the health of mothers and babies. Formula makers — primarily Big Pharma and Big Food companies — are undermining women and families’ access to adequate healthcare by limiting healthcare providers’ abilities to provide accurate, science-based information about breastfeeding and infant care to their patients
  • Hospitals and doctors’ offices shouldn’t be used as marketing vehicles for any product, period. This is especially the case where products that are potentially harmful to public health are concerned. Marketing products that run counter to accepted public health guidance compromises the ethical principles that these facilities ought to uphold.
  • Some spheres of society are too important to be overwhelmed by constant commercialism. Family and health are two such spheres where advertising simply does not belong. We need to protect these areas from commercial values and ensure that higher values prevail.

Q: Why are infant formula makers eager to advertise in healthcare settings?

A: Infant formula companies are eager to draw in new customers. Formula makers are keen to use healthcare settings as a primary site to market their products because:

  • Advertising formula in hospitals or doctors’ offices adds legitimacy to these products. If doctors or hospitals allow this marketing, they are assumed to endorse the safety and health claims made by formula makers — claims that are often suspect and serve to confuse consumers.
  • They provide an ideal venue in which to reach target customers — expectant and new moms — at a time when they can choose a better product: breastfeeding. Formula companies have a vested interest in less women breastfeeding. It’s the primary way they can sell more formula.
  • While many hospitals are now promoting breastfeeding, formula companies gain the opportunity to confuse breastfeeding education messages that convey the many benefits of nursing and the risks to both mom and baby of formula feeding.

Q: Do infant formula samples really affect whether mothers choose to breastfeed? Aren’t you underestimating women’s ability to make good choices for themselves and their babies?


A: Research convincingly shows that formula marketing — including samples — has a significant effect on breastfeeding. Women who receive commercial formula sample “discharge bags” in hospitals breastfeed for shorter durations and are less likely to breastfeed exclusively. Even women who receive formula company branded bags without formula inside them have been shown to breastfeed less than those who do not. In combination with the high volume of formula company advertising many women encounter while they are pregnant, whether in email or regular mail form, television, or online, there is no question that formula marketing has an effect on us. Formula companies spend millions of dollars on marketing — because it works.

Q:Are you trying to force women to formula feed their babies? Does your campaign vilify women who formula feed?

A: Our campaign to stop marketing of formula in healthcare facilities is not about individual families’ choices about how they will feed their children. Our concern is with how and where infant formula is marketed. Breastfeeding has been clinically shown to be best for babies and mothers’ health, and as such it makes sense for healthcare providers to recommend and support it. Most women are able to breastfeed if they have access to appropriate support systems. However, we recognize that for some women, breastfeeding is not the best option or is not possible. Commercial infant formula is readily available to these women and their families, and we are not trying to eliminate the product, nor are we passing judgment on women who cannot or choose not to breastfeed. But, the vast majority of women (80 percent) enter the hospital intending to breastfeed. In order to support these mothers in fulfilling this intention, we believe healthcare facilities must provide adequate support, which includes removing formula marketing from their premises.

Q:The cost of formula is very high. For women who formula feed, doesn’t your campaign seek to deny them a much needed free product?

A: As the folks at Ban the Bags point out, the samples provided in discharge bags are not really “free.” The formula industry provides the most expensive varieties of formula in these sample bags. Believing (understandably) that the formula provided for them at the hospital must be best, most mothers continue to use the same brand once they leave – and that’s exactly what formula companies intend. When families continue using the brand name formulas given for “free” in discharge bags, it will cost at least $700 extra per year.

Q: Our hospital already eliminated industry-provided formula samples, but we received your letter and are on your list. Why?

A: First, congratulations! We commend you for taking this important step. Second, we apologize. In our efforts to reach as many of the hospitals that continue to permit formula marketing in their facilities as possible, we may have inadvertently included some that have already eliminated formula marketing. Please let us know and we will remove you from our list immediately.

Questions? Need more info? Contact Liz Ben-Ishai at formula.marketing@citizen.org