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The WHO Code Taskforce Frequently Asked Questions

All families deserve to make informed decisions about infant and young child feeding based on objective factual information free from confusing and exploitative marketing.


The WHO Code: Frequently Asked Questions

What is the WHO Code?

The WHO Code is the abbreviation for the WHO International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes.

Read more - The WHO Code in detail 

How does marketing affect feeding decisions?

Formula milk is a $55 billion industry, and its marketing efforts aim to maximise profit rather than improve public health or empower parents.  

Formula milk advertising is insidious and one of the biggest issues is that the tactics used are so discreet that you might not even be aware you are the target of marketing. From sponsorship of health professional events and research, to setting up online mums’ groups and harvesting personal data from parenting apps, marketing is highly personalised and aims to exploit the anxieties of parents. 

Two reports published by WHO and UNICEF outline the ways in which formula milk marketing impact families decisions around infant and young child feeding. Including,

  • Formula milk companies use manipulative marketing tactics that exploit parents’ anxieties and aspirations. Including claiming products can solve common infant problems such as sleep or colic for which there is no scientific basis.
  • Formula milk companies make false and incomplete scientific claims and position formula as close to, equivalent or superior to breast milk despite growing evidence to the contrary.
  • The sustained flow of strategic and persuasive formula marketing undermines women’s confidence in their ability to breastfeed, with the fears and doubts they express about breastfeeding often mirroring the themes and messaging of marketing.
  • Formula milk companies use highly targeted online marketing to get to women during their first pregnancy or in the first weeks after birth when they are most vulnerable to marketing messages.
  • Formula milk marketers also aggressively harvest data to targeted women with online marketing when they are most vulnerable. Formula companies don’t just use algorithms or collect user data from websites and social media platforms, they also use parenting apps to harvest more identifying data from mothers, individualising their messages.
  • The lack of transparency of formula milk marketing poses a significant threat to families’ informed decision making. Marketing tactics are so discreet it can be difficult to determine where the messages are coming from and who has a vested interest. From sponsorship of health professional events and research, to setting up online mums’ groups.

You can read more about the impact of formula milk marketing on feeding decisions in the joint report from WHO and UNICEF here and the the joint report on the scope and impact of digital marketing.

Why regulate the marketing of these products specifically?

For babies under 6 months they receive all of their nutrition from milk feeds (breastmilk or formula). This continues to be their main source of nutrition until 12months. That is why food security and feeding decisions are so important for babies under 12 months. There are risks with introducing formula and risks of not breastfeeding.  

When parents make the decision to stop or reduce breastfeeding they need to do so based on clear, factual information from appropriate sources, not marketing spin from an industry that stands to make a profit.

Is the WHO Code anti-formula?

Regulating the industry to stop confusing and exploitative marketing empowers all families.

The WHO Code explicitly states that breastmilk substitutes, feeding bottles and teats should be available when needed, but should not be promoted. The WHO Code focuses on regulating the marketing of breastmilk substitutes, feeding bottles and teats.

A recent report from WHO/UNICEF found that formula milk marketing is insidious and one of the biggest issues is that the tactics used are so discrete parents might not even be aware they are the target of marketing. 

Australian Standards say that any ingredient that is independently proven to be of nutritional value for babies must be put in all formula, therefore a formula brand claiming they have a special ingredient is not factual.   

Formula milk companies want to convince you to buy their formula milk. Whether thats in competition with breastfeeding or another brand of formula milk, they want to generate the largest profit and charge a premium price.

Parents just want what’s best for their baby, the industry want what’s best for their bottom line - they achieve that with confusing and exploitative marketing.  

What is Australia doing about the WHO Code?

The Marketing in Australia of Infant Formulas (MAIF) Agreement is Australia's response to the WHO Code. The MAIF Agreement is a self-regulatory agreement between infant formula manufacturers and importers who are signatories to the Agreement. The Agreement is overseen by the Department of Health and Ageing.

The MAIF Agreement has a much narrower scope than the WHO Code. For example, it doesn't cover bottles or teats, retailers or pharmacists and it only covers infant formula for babies under 12 months.

In addition, the MAIF Agreement is not legally binding, and any sanctions can only be applied to signatories that breach the Agreement.

Thus, the widespread advertising and marketing of many breastmilk substitutes, including toddler formulas, solids, bottles and teats, can legitimately continue under the MAIF Agreement.

There are also some labelling regulations covered by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand.

The Australian Breastfeeding Association calls on the Australian Government to replace the MAIF Agreement with legislation implementing the WHO Code in full.

What does the Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy say about the WHO Code?

The recently launched Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy (ANBS) 2019 has as one of its main principles to:

'Ensure that governments and health care and education institutions protect the community from false and misleading marketing and advertising of breastmilk substitutes that fall within the WHO Code and subsequent WHA resolutions.' (p 29)

In Action Area 1.2 of the Strategy, it is stated that the Commonwealth will undertake a review of 'regulatory arrangements for restricting the marketing of breastmilk substitutes' and 'raise awareness of the MAIF Agreement in the community' (p34).

The Australian Breastfeeding Association asks the Australian Government to progress this further by replacing the MAIF Agreement with the full implementation of the WHO Code. Australian mothers, babies and families deserve supportive environments to enable the optimal nourishment of their children.

ABA normally uses mother-to-mother language. Why is this campaign focusing on families?

Supporting breastfeeding is the responsibility of everyone in the community but its mothers who should receive that support. Breastfeeding is a mother’s right. That’s why when providing support on breastfeeding ABA speaks mostly to mothers, they are the ones who are breastfeeding their babies.

When it comes to the WHO Code, ABA acknowledge that it often isn’t the mother who makes the sometimes-urgent trip to make the first purchase. Other family members, including partners, fathers and grandparents, are often involved in purchasing breastmilk substitutes, feeding bottles and teats. Breastmilk substitutes, feeding bottles and teats are also used by a variety of families in diverse circumstances where breastfeeding and breastmilk may not be available including adoptive families, foster families, families who have had a surrogate and rainbow families.

ABA believe that regardless of the situation, all families deserve to make informed decisions about infant and young child feeding based on objective factual information free from confusing and exploitative marketing.

Shouldn’t parents be free to make decisions for themselves?  

Absolutely! That’s exactly what we’re saying, all families have a right to make informed decisions about what and how to feed their baby based on factual information not marketing spin. 

news and media2

Report a breach of the WHO Code in Australia

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The WHO Code in detail


Report: Impact of Formula Milk Marketing

WHO UNICEF Digital Marketing

Report: Formula Milk Digital Marketing