Friday, 20 November 2015

UNICEF Baby Friendly conference 2015 - the morning after

I'm back at my desk after two days at the UNICEF Baby Friendly conference 2015 in Harrogate. Like last year I've come away enthused, inspired, outraged and with a whole heap of work to do...

The presentations by Christy Jo Hendricks, IBCLC, and Dr Helen Crawley of First Steps Nutrition, showed us examples of downright dishonest marketing from the formula companies, including a tin that made extravagant health claims for the product, with an asterisk(*). On the side of the tin, in tiny writing, it said '*study applies to an earlier version of this milk'! Even after years of breastfeeding advocacy it seems I (and many others in the audience) can still be shocked by this sort of thing. A US parent information leaflet, sponsored by a formula company, said on the first page 'most doctors* recommend...', while the wording below said '*in this publication doctors refers to midwives, obstetricians, paediatricians and any other health professional you trust'! This is unbelievably misleading. As Christy Jo memorably said: 'Don't go to a formula company for advice about breastfeeding. That's like going to the butcher to ask for advice about being vegetarian.'

Dr Helen Crawley getting the audience fired up.

On the issue of formula company sponsorship of health events aimed at professionals it was great to see some direct action as a result of the conference session. A health visitor in the audience reported that the CPHVA conference, sponsored by several formula companies and related organisations, was taking place in Manchester (overlapping with Baby Friendly - coincidence?). The result was a petition, to be delivered to CPHVA, that will carry the names and membership numbers of health visitors who were at the Baby Friendly conference, asking them to ditch the formula company sponsorship that is a clear conflict of interest for health professionals who want to work within the Code. Hopefully this, along with continued pressure on social media, will prompt a change in direction. National breastfeeding organisations like La Leche League, the ABM and the Breastfeeding Network, along with Baby Friendly, have shown that it is perfectly possible to organise Code-compliant conferences for large numbers of delegates without input from the formula industry.

If you came away from the conference angry, why not join Baby Milk Action? They campaign tirelessly against the formula companies, exposing the marketing tactics and bringing cases to the Advertising Standards Authority and Trading Standards on behalf of the parents who are paying for all this slick, misleading marketing when they buy formula. There's tons of information on the Baby Milk Action website, and if you work for a facility that would like training on the Code, you can contact them directly.

If I sound evangelical it's because I think organisations like Baby Milk Action and First Steps Nutrition are absolutely vital if we are to push back against the widespread, normalised use of formula - a theme that Professor Mary Renfrew explored in her presentation about shifting the curve: she suggested we turn our breastfeeding drop-off rate graph upside down, and look at reducing formula use instead. Between them the speakers had lots of solutions to the problem: tackling the media stance on breastfeeding, reinstating the Infant Feeding Survey in England, freeing research from company influence and forcing companies to release their research, implementing the Code and empowering mothers, through support and education, to resist the marketing and reduce dependency on formula. What's frustrating is that we know what works - the problem is getting the support and funding needed. Infant feeding in the UK is an issue with a unique set of political and social challenges, something that was highlighted when Sue Ashmore talked about the long-term sustainability of Baby Friendly; it's not a programme that can run and then stop. If that happened, our gains would be eroded because of the constant pressure from industry and a lack of political commitment, so what's needed is a way of embedding the Baby Friendly standards into the very bedrock of facilities; an advanced award. (The consultation about how to do this is here, do get involved if you can.)

With this in mind it was fantastic to see Alison Thewliss, MP at the conference. She's already secured and participated in debates about breastfeeding and a family-friendly parliament, and is setting up an All Party Parliamentary Group on Infant Feeding and Inequalities, which will meet for the first time on 24 November. I've written to my MP asking her to support this and encourage others to do the same.

Me on stage with Sue Ashmore and Robin Grille
Other personal highlights of the conference for me were chairing in the morning session on day two - I was nervous, but very happy to be representing the bloggers and Tweeters who campaign for breastfeeding on social media. I realised I will never, ever get bored of listening to Hollie McNish, and I helped out on the Pinter and Martin stand and talked to a lot of people about books (I love my job!). I came home with a new reading list of my own - Robin Grille's Heart to Heart Parenting landed on the mat this morning. Can't wait for next year in Birmingham...