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Baby Bottle Campaigns: How to Stop a Bad Message & Support a Good Cause

Pregnant woman folding baby clothes. Baby bottle campaigns are becoming popular fundraisers for babies in need.

Seldom do good causes make me cringe. This one had me not only cringing, but even drawing back and shrinking down in my pew. When the church’s guest speaker explained “we’d like you to take one of these beautiful baby bottles home, fill it with spare change and other donations throughout the week, and then bring it back next Saturday to benefit mothers and babies in need,” my stomach sank. As a nurse who has dedicated years of my life’s work to supporting mothers in breastfeeding, seeing a baby bottle used as the symbol for babies in need didn’t sit well with me. And hearing the words “beautiful” and “bottle” in the same sentence definitely triggered my cringe-shrink mechanism!

Only moments later, the woman continued, “… and we use the money to buy cribs and layettes and formula for the babies.” I sank even lower in my pew and muttered, perhaps a little too loudly, “This is outrageous.”

Baby = Bottle? Not so!

Everyone wants to help the babies, and “baby bottle campaigns” seem to be spreading. As far as I can tell from a quick Google search, such fundraisers are usually sponsored by religion-based organizations — but with “how to” pages popping up around the Internet, they’re likely to spread further. This is not the first time I’ve encountered one. This time, the pitch was made at the close of worship at the church I attend in Virginia; last year, I heard it at my mother’s church hundreds of miles away, outside of Rochester, New York.

Last year, I snagged the church secretary after the service and sputtered, “It isn’t responsible to promote bottles as the symbol for babyhood. And it certainly isn’t responsible to promote formula!” The secretary, who knows me well, said, “Marie, I get what you’re saying, but we can’t hand church-goers a breast as a container for donations!”

Although her response got a chortle out of me, it didn’t address my primary concern: That when we use bottles as a symbol of babies, we perpetuate the idea that babies need bottles. And formula. In fact, the argument could be made that it’s babies in need who need breastfeeding most of all! (That’s why WIC now focuses a lot of its effort on breastfeeding support.)

Fight the message, but do good

At my home church in Virginia, I decided to take a more diplomatic approach to the problem. Rather than take my concerns to the church staff, I decided to talk to the guest speaker directly. As I walked towards her, she reached out to hand me a bottle. (I felt so repulsed by the bottle coming towards me, I could feel myself recoil with a half step backwards.)

Politely but firmly, I said, “No, I am not taking the bottle, but I thought perhaps I could offer my services.” She directed me to the appropriate web site and phone number. I admit I don’t have a complete plan, but I do plan to contact them. Here’s how:

Combating the baby bottle campaigns

  1. Contact the sponsoring organization. It appears to me that there are several — or perhaps many — sponsoring organizations. This seems to be propagating as a grassroots fundraiser for various organizations. I’ll start with the local one — the one that reached out to me at church and has an active campaign going on this week. I’c probably stick with a traditional letter sent by postal mail. But e-mail does have the benefit of allowing me to cc: a local media contact, if I want to draw more attention to my concerns.
  2. Start the letter with a positive note. Applaud the organization’s efforts to help mothers and babies.
  3. Express a willingness to help. I could cheerfully donate money, but will refuse to put it into a baby bottle. I also wouldn’t knowingly give it to a group that will use it to purchase formula. As a knitter, I’m happy to donate a lovely layette, or maybe a lovely shawl for the mother. Volunteering my time is something I’d glady do. I am fully qualified to educate pregnant or new mothers about breastfeeding, or to do some train-the-trainer courses for those who currently work with the mothers and babies. I’m open to other suggestions, too — as long as they don’t endorse formula, explicitly or implicitly.
  4. Build awareness in the Board of Directors. They need to hear that the cost of a bottle and a can of formula is small in comparison to the costs of not breastfeeding for the mothers and babies. The health, nutritional, economical, and emotional benefits (for lack of a better word) for breastfeeding are well-established, and I’ll highlight a few, such as fewer ear infections and gastrointestinal illness for the baby, lower health care costs, and reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer for the mother. There are even environmental benefits. A nonprofit Board of Directors should use its resources wisely, and buying formula is difficult to justify.
  5. Offer an alternative. For decades, since infant formula overtook breastfeeding as the leading way to feed U.S. babies, its makers have equated bottles with babies. The symbology is hard to shake. But there are many alternatives available. How about pastel treat boxes adorned with dye-cut baby footprints? Every baby has footprints, and there’s no implication for infant feeding with little boxes!

Have you seen a Baby Bottle Campaign in your community? If so, how did you react? What suggestions do you have? I’d love to share ideas about this maddening fundraising scheme.

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  1. SK

    Once again I am so impressed with your commitment, compassion, and enthusiasm not just for doing the right thing for mom’s and babies, but for making sure others aren’t doing the wrong thing. That is a step above, important, and so impressive!
    You are a fabulous role – model, and inspire all of us out there to join you and campaign and advocate for doing the very best thing for an infant’s nutrition, and for a mom’s health.

    I have not seen this around yet, but it’s likely everywhere. I looked at those boxes, and it seems perfect to use a box to collect change- like a bank. GREAT SUGGESTION. In the Jewish community we have TZEDAKAH boxes to collect charity- same idea, and they come in all shapes and sizes. The point is to collect the money, not advertise the container- so I agree the bottles have to go. People do not understand the subliminal message of the bottle, and certainly most do not know or care about problematic formula, or lack of breastfeeding.

    You have inspired me on a whole new level here. Thank you so much for thoughtfully putting this into words for all of us to contemplate!

    You are fantastic!
    I was a huge fan of yours, but now even more so-if that’s even possible!

    Very Sincerely I thank you,
    and on behalf of all the innocents who don’t even know about this… thank you for your efforts on their behalf!
    Stephanie Krasner, RN, CPNP, IBCLC
    San Diego, CA

  2. Marie

    Stephanie, you hit it exactly: The point is to collect the money, not advertise the container. While some people think it’s “cute”, it’s not. If we organizing charitable donations for homeless people, we wouldn’t hand out shopping carts to collect the money. The idea that the bottle has become so entrenched as the symbol for babyhood is just horrible. What has our society come to?

    Thank you for your positive feedback. It’s often hard to “keep on keeping on” but I do try to get people to think about how breastfeeding is a public health issue, and a societal issue. You and I and thousands of other professionals can help individual mothers and babies all day long, but we have to help make changes at the societal level. It isn’t easy, that’s for sure!

  3. Kathleen Wegner

    Thank you so much for providing your thoughts and suggestions. The baby bottles also used at my church for collecting donations to help teen mothers in our community. Yes, I also cringed but did not say or do anything about it. Luckily, the speaker did not say the money would be used for formula.

    Your post has now inspired and empowered me with some very great ways to help and to hopefully to encourage the organizers to use another form of collection for next year. (Maybe I will provide the footprint boxes or something similar in exchange for the bottles that will go for recycling).

    You are helping so many to be strong in supporting breastfeeding.
    Thanks so very much,
    Kathleen Wegner, BSN, RN, IBCLC

  4. Marie

    Kathleen, thank you. I’m glad the blog had a positive impact, and believe me, it’s comments like yours that help me to keep on thinking, and keep on posting and keep on trying to make a dent in the big cultural problems we have.

    When I got to nursing school and they asked each of us why we wanted to be a nurse, pretty much everyone in the class said, “Because I want to help people.” Well, I wanted to help people, too, and I think I have done that. But when they came to me and asked why I wanted to be a nurse, I said, loud and clear, “Because I want to change the world.”

    I loved being a staff nurse, and I do think I “helped people.” But there are so many opportunities to “change the world.” It’s stuff like this that we need to take on…respectfully, diplomatically, yes. But also deliberately, firmly, and repeatedly. (I’ve got similar stories like this where I’ve taken on the whole bottle/formula thing!)

    Thank you for your nice note, it was great to hear from you.

  5. Louise Guthro

    Hi Marie,
    I had come across this a number of years ago when my mother handed me a church flyer describing the same. What I thought might be a good alternative instead of a baby bottle would be a mason jar, subliminally it might promote healthy eating. Mason jars are easy to come by and a pint jar would hold double the amount of small change than a baby bottle. Great suggestions on how to approach the concern.

    • Marie

      Louise, I am just recovering from a big trip out of town. I am intrigued by your “subliminal” message, as well as your practical observation about space! Totally, totally right on! This is one of the things that make me glad that I have a blog…would not be likely to get these great ideas if I never raised some flap about these things! Thanks!

  6. Nancy

    It’s a bank. It’s a cute way to collect money needed to sustain the pregnancy center that offers support in every way and shares the life changing gospel. It’s another way to collect money. That’s it. Let’s not exaggerate it. No one is promoting formula by using them. It’s a bank. This article is laughable!

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