Four reasons to NOT donate baby formula overseas

Back when I was working on the Navajo reservation a church group invited me to join them in putting together care packages for Thailand. Having worked in Thailand I was very skeptical of what they were sending over: baby bottles, formula, diapers and diaper pins. I’d never seen a rural Thai using any of those items and could imagine the Thais pulling them out of the box and wondering over them. I had assumed that they would simply be a useless donation. It was only later that I found out the well-intentioned donation was not only useless but also potentially harmful.


If a mother uses formula and thus reduces or stops breastfeeding, it creates a problem when the donated formula runs out. The mother will have problems adequately breastfeeding her child because she has decreased or even ended her own milk production. Thus a simple good will donation can actually lead to a dependency on the item that is donated.


Think of how much it costs to feed a child formula in your own country. Prices in developing countries are not all that much cheaper. Purchasing formula can quickly become a financial hardship or impossibility. If a family cannot afford to purchase enough formula they may either water down the formula to make it stretch further and thus deprive their child of adequate nutrition, or they might try a substitute like powdered milk or sweetened and diluted cows milk.

Illness and Death

Depending on the location, mothers may have to walk miles to collect water or firewood. This makes it almost impossible to properly sterilize bottles or ensure that there is enough clean water to mix with the formula. The issue becomes even worse in emergency situations. According to an article from the Humanitarian Practice Network:

“Even in the best, most hygienic conditions, artificially-fed babies are five times more likely to suffer diarrhoeal diseases. In unsanitary, crowded conditions, a lack of safe water and a lack of
facilities to sterilise feeding bottles and prepare formula safely and correctly means that artificially fed infants are more than 20 times more likely to die from diarrhoea and other infectious diseases than
infants who are exclusively breastfed.”

Donating formula appears on the surface to be a great way to help out, but there are many unintended consequences.

*** Update

Caution should be used with breast milk donations as well, if not properly handled it can also cause problems, and keeping it cold throughout the entire delivery can be a logistical struggle. For more see this article and this article

Although formula feeding should not be an automatic solution, there are instances when formula is appropriate. Before starting or donating to any formula donation program please read the article Infant feeding in emergencies: Experiences from Lebanon to understand the precautions that should be taken.
UNICEF, WHO and WFP call for support for appropriate infant and young child feeding in the current emergency, and caution about unnecessary and potentially harmful donations and use of breast-milk substitutes
For more information on this I recommend reading Don’t Send Baby Formula to Darfur by the Global Health blog. Not only is the article informative, it also includes some good links to other sources of information.