What is the WHO CODE? It is a “code of ethics” developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) to regulate the marketing and distribution of breast milk substitutes. It is a VOLUNTARY code which companies, medical facilities, doctors and organizations are encouraged to follow, but it is not mandatory and there are no repercussions for not following it. It is a code of ethics – much like the honor codes that many colleges have. As taken from code itself, it’s aim is to:
contribute to the provision of safe and adequate nutrition for infants, by the protection and promotion of breast-feeding, and by ensuring the proper use of breast-milk substitutes, when these are necessary, on the basis of adequate information and through appropriate marketing and distribution.
What products/services/behaviors are covered by 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.” (this wording was taken directly out of the code itself).
Why is it important? Because, weather we want to believe it or not – marketing works. And big powerful companies who sell products that affect a mother’s ability to successfully breastfeed her baby spend millions of dollars to make sure that she doesn’t succeed – because if she does – then she won’t buy their products. So they undermine the best efforts of all moms, making us question our choices and abilities. And they promote products and practices that will only shorten our breastfeeding relationships with our babies. They affect our relationships with our pediatricians and caregivers and they hamper our ability to get good, accurate information that will help us to meet our breastfeeding goals.
Did you notice that I said “Breastfeeding Goals”? I didn’t say they prohibit us from breastfeeding for a year – or that they prohibit us from reaching the WHO breastfeeding goals – I said they prohibit us from meeting OUR breastfeeding goals – US – as mothers.
Did you know that >75% of mothers WANT TO BREASTFEED? And that by the time a baby reaches 3 months of age, only 33% of mothers are exclusively breastfeeding? Do you think that this is because most mothers don’t want to breastfeed for 3 months? No – it’s because mothers are booby-trapped. They don’t have the support they need, they are given poor advice by their doctors and they read and listen to advertising by companies that don’t want them to succeed.
Shouldn’t we be smart enough to see through the ads? It’s not about being smart enough or seeing through it. It’s about deception. When companies and doctors who are supposed to be “authorities” are giving mothers poor advice and when “breastfeeding support” hotlines are set up by companies who don’t want you to breastfeed. (have you heard of the breastfeeding “counselors” that formula companies have hired to steer moms in the wrong direction?). Not to mention the fact that a new mother is at her most vulnerable when it comes to feeding her baby and feeling competent. She is already “questioning” her abilities to take care of this fragile being that has come out of her body. She is looking for reassurance that she is doing everything right – and that is not what she gets. Marketing is powerful – companies are fooled, doctors are fooled and mothers are fooled. It doesn’t mean you are weak or less smart – it means that the companies are getting what they pay for – effective marketing.
It is for all of these reasons that the WHO Code is so important. And it is for all of these reasons that we as mothers and business owners and members of society need to tell companies that we will not tolerate their open recklessness and lack of caring about the Code. Are breastmilk substitutes necessary? Absolutely! Should they be marketed responsibly? You bet! And should all companies that manufacture products in these categories abide by the code of ethics and responsibility outlined by the World Health Organization? A RESOUNDING YES!