Friends of Breastfeeding wishes the World Health Organisation Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes – a.k.a. ‘The Code’ – a very happy 40th birthday. We hope you’ll join us this week in celebrating its importance and achievements, and by nudging your local representatives for further action towards its full implementation in Ireland.

Friends of Breastfeeding is fully committed to the values of the WHO Code – to protect breastfeeding, to protect all mothers and babies and to prevent aggressive marketing practices that can prevent mothers from meeting their own breastfeeding goals. This commitment is baked into our constitution as a core principle at the heart of the charity’s actions, and all of our activities and events are explicitly Code compliant.

When the Code was first adopted on 21st May  1981 many of today’s breastfeeding mothers and their supporting partners were themselves babies (or not conceived). Yet the aim of the Code remains as relevant today as it was then: to ensure the provision of safe and adequate nutrition for all infants. The Code seeks to protect and support breastfeeding; and does this by ensuring the availability of impartial information, free from commercial influence, about breastmilk substitutes through the regulation of the marketing and promotion of these products.

Why is The Code still so important? To maintain or increase profit, companies offering breastmilk substitutes need parents to formula feed rather than breastfeed, to choose their formula milk over a competitor’s and then to use it as much and as long as possible. To do this the industry spends millions each year on advertising and marketing its products, encouraging mothers not to breastfeed or to stop breastfeeding early, and to use an array of different, expensive formula milks, as soon as possible and for as long as possible. There is no evidence that more expensive substitute milks are beneficial to a baby’s health, with most unnecessary, and they can be harmful by undermining breastfeeding and misleading parents who bottle feed about what milk to use.

Ireland has implemented some portions of the WHO Code but not all. Regular reviews of country implementation progress are undertaken by WHO, UNICEF and the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN). Analysing legal measures in place, in the most recent report (May 2020), 25 countries scored 75 or above and were considered ‘substantially aligned with the Code’. Ireland scored 39 out of 100 – showing Irish parents have some but minimal protection against inappropriate and harmful BMS marketing. Aggressive marketing and discounting of follow-on formulas are still permitted in Ireland, as is sponsorship of events for health care providers and expectant parents. It is no coincidence that only 6% of Irish infants are exclusively breastfed to six months of age, compared with the global average of 40% and the European average of 25%.

There still remains too much of the Code that has no force of law in Ireland. To that end, Friends of Breastfeeding asks our members and followers mark this milestone anniversary for the WHO Code by contacting your local elected representative to highlight the 40th anniversary of the Code, and to request that they seek an update from the government, the Department of Health, and the HSE as to the progress being made towards the full implementation of the protections of the Code in Ireland. You can find details of how to do this below and on our website here, including a draft email you can use. 

Please join us this week to celebrate the importance and achievements of the Code in protecting infants, and email your local representatives to ask for further action in its implementation.




Edel Quirke

LL.B., LL.M., Barrister at Law, PhD

Chairperson Friends of Breastfeeding (RCN 20074197, CHY No. 19054)