Booby Traps Series: Are popular pregnancy and parenting magazines good or bad for breastfeeding?


This cover provoked a huge outcry. Do you think it helped or hurt the breastfeeding cause?

Have you picked up a parenting magazine in your pediatrician’s waiting room recently?  What messages did you find – in both content and advertising – about breastfeeding?

Print media may not have the the influence it once did over mothers’ feeding decisions, but pregnancy and parenting magazines remain a significant cultural force in American parenting.

The top four magazines aimed at new parents – Parenting, Parents, American Baby, and Baby Talk – had combined total circulations of about 8 million.  That’s two copies for each of the 4 million babies born each year!  Fit Pregnancy ranks in the top 10 consumer magazines by nonpaid circulation, as does the Spanish language pregnancy magazine Ser Padres Espera, which – in combination with it’s sister Ser Padres Bebe magazine – had a combined circulation of 1.6 million.  And none of this includes the sizeable online audience these magazines have.

So, what do these magazines say about breastfeeding?

One analysis of 615 articles published in parenting, general women’s, and African American magazines from 1997 to 2003 found that:

  • The magazines provided more information on breastfeeding than formula feeding.
  • Parenting magazines included more “advice” than information on breastfeeding benefits, or the barriers and how to overcome them.
  • African American magazines presented more information on breastfeeding benefits than advice or information on barriers.
  • Messages were focused on individualized breastfeeding barriers and advice.
  • Messages seldom covered social and environmental issues.
  • Messages placed much of the responsibility of infant feeding on the mother, while the role of social and partner support was diminished.
  • Bottle-feeding images were nearly as common as breastfeeding images.

Did you catch the finding about the responsibility landing solely on the mother’s shoulders and the absence of discussion of barriers to breastfeeding?  This is evidence of the bind that mothers have experienced for years – being told to breastfeed and set up to fail, and it’s exactly the culture Best for Babes works to change.

So these are the messages, but how accurate is the information in them?  I’ve never seen a review of the accuracy of breastfeeding information in parenting magazines, but I can tell you that I’ve seen quite a few which make me cringe.  While the media insists that editorial content is not influenced by advertising, the persistence of negative messages and blatant misinformation has us thinking otherwise.   Some media outlets even allow corporate sponsors (e.g. formula companies) to write breastfeeding articles for expecting and new moms, which is a huge Booby Trap.

And then there’s the advertising.  We know that pictures speak louder, and have greater influence than words, and it sure is hard to miss the glossy formula ads in pregnancy and parenting magazines.  One analysis of pregnancy and early parenting magazines in a one year period from 2006 to 2007 found 173 infant formula advertisements in 77 individual issues of 16 different magazines.  We also know that when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ran national  breastfeeding ads in 2004, infant formula advertising doubled to $50 million per year (far outstripping the breastfeeding ad campaign).  During this period, breastfeeding rates actually declined (Please read:  HHS Toned Down Breastfeeding Ads, from the Washington Post).    Obviously, we need more breastfeeding ads, but while top ad agency Mullen Inc. / Frank About Women donated a stellar breastfeeding ad campaign to Best for Babes – a campaign that is not vulnerable to pressure from formula lobbyists – unfortunately we lack the funds to run it on billboards and bus stations the way it deserves (want to change that?  Click here!).

Ads like this are highly effective in persuading readers that formula or is equal or even superior to breastmilk.

Ads like this are highly effective in persuading readers that formula or is equal or even superior to breastmilk.

The analysis also found that “more than half of all infant formula advertisements made some type of health statement. Health statements varied greatly but generally advertised improvements in gastrointestinal, brain, or eye health; language development; or reduced incidence of allergies, food intolerances, and gastrointestinal disorders”  What they don’t say is that these “improvements” are in comparison to older, basic versions of formula, but not breastmilk; the improvements are much greater when babies are breastfed!   Formula advertisements are highly successful in manipulating the viewer into thinking that formula is just as good as breastmilk. And of course, all of these advertisements violate the World Health Organization’s Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, which prohibits direct advertising to consumers.  This Code was developed by international physicians, scientists, epidemiologists and public health experts to protect mothers’ and babies’ right to breastfeed.

There certainly are magazines working to provide evidence-based and independent content about breastfeeding to their readers, and we’ll be writing about them in another post.  Not all pregnancy and parenting magazines and websites are created equal!

What have you seen about breastfeeding in popular pregnancy and parenting magazines?   Is the information accurate? 


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4 Comments | Last revised on 10/02/2013

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