By Clare Murphy
Health reporter, BBC News
Infant milk advertising is subject to stricter regulation than alcohol
Breastfeeding activists say they are "dismayed" by a draft report for the food watchdog that finds few major problems with follow-on milk adverts.
Most parents are not confused by the adverts, the report finds, saying they do understand the milks are only for babies aged six months and over.
Industry has welcomed the report, but campaigners say it misses the point.
They claim branding means the follow-on milks also effectively market newborn milks - adverts for which are banned.
The final version of the report is due to be published in the new year, when it will be sent to the Department of Health for consideration. But the independent review panel - which was commissioned by the Food Standards Agency - is not soliciting comment on the general thrust of its conclusions.
Feeding young babies follow-on milk could cause some harm - mainly constipation - as it contains relatively high levels of iron, designed to replenish the store that runs out at about six months.
Clearer age information on packs
TV voiceovers specify age of child
Infants shown clearly six months and older
While concluding that most parents were clear that adverts for follow-on milks were for products aimed at babies over six months, the panel said it was impossible to state categorically that no parent was in any doubt, so it made a series of recommendations to modify commercials and packaging.
These include more pronounced text on boxes, and voiceovers on TV commercials. The baby pictured must be clearly developed, with hair and teeth for instance, and good head control so it could not be mistaken for a newborn.
"The point is that this review completely misses the point," said Patti Rundall of the Baby Feeding Law Group, an umbrella group of various organisations asked to submit evidence to the panel.
"It had the most ludicrously narrow remit - whether parents were feeding follow-on milks to babies under six months. That's not the issue.
"These adverts are simply a way of getting around the ban on promoting milks for younger babies. Breastmilk substitutes are necessary products, but they should not be something we advertise to the general public - because everyone gets bamboozled by all the various claims."
The Infant and Dietetic Foods Association (IDFA), the industry body which represents milk firms, said it was impressed by the "depth and rigour" the panel had applied to the review.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: "Once the report is finished we plan to give careful consideration to the panel's conclusions and any recommendations made."
Cigarettes, alcohol and baby milk
The report was commissioned to examine whether 2007 guidelines - drawn up in response to an EU directive covering both the nutritional content of artificial milk and how it is marketed - were proving effective.
Advertising of formula milk for younger babies was already subject to restrictions as tight as those on tobacco and tighter than those on alcohol.
These new guidelines stopped any promotion via the health service in the form of sample packs given away to new mothers, and regulated the way in which follow-on milks could be marketed.
The World Health Organisation recommends that babies are breastfed exclusively for the first six months, and that a mother should continue to breastfeed alongside solid food for the first two years.
However less than 1% of women in the UK actually breastfeed their baby exclusively for this long, and NHS research suggests a significant number experience problems in the first few weeks - with insufficient milk supply and baby's failure to suckle properly cited as the main problems.
Two studies this year have also pointed to concerns that a focus on "breast is best" means women who bottle feed by choice or necessity may not have the information they need to do so safely, and that as midwives may be confused about the advice they are "allowed" to provide on formula.
It is thought cases of gastroenteritis and even obesity could be avoided if mothers were given better information about the sterilisation of feeding equipment and how much to feed according to their babies' weight.
The Royal College of Midwives has just published a new guide with details of all the formula milks available to enable staff to better help mothers who bottle feed.
Rosie Dodds of the National Childbirth Trust said the information vacuum was an area that urgently needed to be tackled.
"It's true that there are many factors when it comes to making a decision to bottle-feed but it's not patronising to say mothers should be protected from these adverts.
"What we really need is government to step in with more impartial, evidence-based information about these milks, so that mothers do not have to rely on misleading adverts."