Some formula milk manufacturers are paying social media platforms and influencers to gain direct access to pregnant women and mothers.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the companies are seeking to increase the use of breast-milk substitutes by dissuading mothers from breastfeeding exclusively as recommended.
The global formula milk industry is valued at about Sh6.4 trillion ($55 billion).
WHO has called on the baby food industry to end exploitative marketing and urged governments to protect children.
The UN health agency further called on the enactment of laws to end the promotion of formula milk products.
In the report titled 'Scope and Impact of Digital Marketing Strategies for Promoting Breast-milk Substitutes', the organisation cites apps, baby clubs, paid social media influencers and formula milk companies that buy or collect personal information and send promotions to new mothers or pregnant women.
Formula milk companies post content on their social media accounts around 90 times per day, reaching 229 million users, says the report.
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“The promotion of commercial milk formulas should have been terminated decades ago,” said Dr Francesco Branca, director of the WHO Department of Nutrition for Health and Development.
“The fact that formula milk companies are now employing even more powerful marketing techniques to drive up their sales is inexcusable."
The report compiled evidence from social listening research on public online communications and individual country reports of research that monitors breast-milk substitute promotions. It also assessed a recent multi-country study of mothers’ and health professionals’ experiences with formula milk marketing.
The study showed how misleading marketing reinforces myths about breastfeeding and breast milk, and undermines women’s confidence in their ability to breastfeed successfully.
Despite evidence that exclusive breastfeeding is a key determinant of improved lifelong health for children, women and communities, far too few children are breastfed as recommended.
If current formula milk marketing strategies continue, that proportion could fall still further, boosting companies’ profits, WHO said.