Breast milk is best, and the government are right to encourage it, say Britons

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
February 01, 2024, 10:27 AM GMT+0

But they disagree with rules prohibiting supermarkets from having price promotions on infant formula

Public Health England describes breastfeeding as “an important public health priority” and says that “supporting families and increasing the number of babies who are breastfed offers the best possible start in life”.

New YouGov research shows that the public agree – as they have for at least a decade. Three quarters of Britons (74%) say that it is better for babies to given breast milk rather than formula milk, including 59% who think it is “much better”.

One in eight (13%) think they are about equally good, while a statistical 0% say formula milk is superior.

The same number of men and women think breast is best, although women are somewhat more likely than men to think neither is significantly better than the other (17% vs 8%), offset by men being more likely to answer “don’t know” (17% vs 11%).

These figures are also all virtually identical to a previous YouGov survey in 2011.

Mothers are especially likely to say breast milk is better than formula, at 78%. More recent mothers – that is to say, those who have at least one child who is under the age of 18 – are more likely to consider breast and formula milk to be equally good, at 23% compared to 14% of mothers whose children are now all over the age of 18.

Breastfeeding is similarly favoured to bottle feeding, with 69% of people considering it the better option – including 70% of men and 73% of women. One in six Britons (17%) consider both equally good, with women again more likely than men to say so (22% vs 10%), and a statistical 0% again say bottle is better.

Mothers are again the most likely to think that breast is better than bottle (75%), although the same caveat is present as in the previous example.

Britons say that it is right for the government to encourage breast milk over formula milk

Campaigners including supermarket groups are currently calling on the government to update legislation which prohibits supermarkets from advertising cuts to the price of formula milk. Current rules ban retailers from advertising discounts on infant formula milk – and other forms of special offers – for fear that it would discourage breastfeeding. Such promotions are allowed for follow-on formula i.e. for babies over the age of six months.

While the majority of Britons say that the government is right to encourage parents to use breast milk over formula (58%), most people also think the government is wrong to put such restrictions on the sale of formula milk (58%, rising to 68% of mothers).

Few agree with the government’s view, with only 19% thinking that promotions on formula milk would serve to discourage breast milk. Fully 53% say it wouldn’t discourage it very much or at all, rising to 62% among women and 68% among mothers.

Government rules on formula milk were put in place because of unethical marketing practices by manufacturers in years gone by. It is not clear that the rules are now outdated: a 2023 study published in The Lancet medical journal described marketing strategies of formula manufacturers as predatory and exploitative.

The results show that the public tend not to trust that manufacturers will behave ethically (45%). A more optimistic 28% do have trust (although only 4% “a great deal” of trust).

Women in this regard are noticeably more trusting than men, at 33% to 23%, and mothers in particular (38%).

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