Moms-to-be have a lot of important decisions to make as they await the birth of their baby, and one of those decisions is how they will feed their new baby — breast or bottle? While many factors are likely to affect a woman’s choice, a new study suggests that baby formula manufacturers are overtly discouraging breastfeeding on their websites, and that is a problem that mothers-to-be should be aware of.

Breastmilk is a complete and perfect source of nutrition for infants. There are many substances present in breastmilk that support a newborn’s healthy growth and development as well as offer protection from infections and other diseases later in life. Moreover, the composition of breastmilk changes over time as a baby’s needs change.

Infant formula websites did not mention any of the benefits of breastfeeding, and the information they did include focused on problems like sore nipples or difficulties with latching on.

Infant nutrition experts from organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, UNICEF and the World Health Organization recommend that babies be fed only breast milk during the first six months of life and encourage moms to continue breastfeeding as long as they wish.

“Many factors influence parents’ decision to breastfeed or use formula, including breastfeeding support and work schedules. But we also know that marketing and advertising play a critical role,” researcher, Jennifer Pomeranz, of the NYU School of Global Public Health, said in a statement. “It is important to understand the messages caregivers are receiving directly from formula companies, whose websites are targeting pregnant women and new parents with marketing claims disguised as feeding advice and support.”

Researchers at NYU analyzed the websites of five infant formula manufacturers, three major companies that make up 98 percent of the U.S. infant formula market and two organic brands. Their goal was to compare the information provided and look at how these websites portrayed breastfeeding.

All of the websites discouraged breastfeeding. They did not mention any of the benefits of breastfeeding, and the information they did include on breastfeeding and breastmilk focused on problems, such as the potential for a low supply of breastmilk, sore nipples or infants’ difficulties with latching on.

Their messaging about formula, on the other hand, hailed its benefits, and manufacturers were more likely to compare their product to breastfeeding rather than compare it to other brands of infant formula.

The images on infant formula websites illustrated the ease of bottle feeding and made breastfeeding look more difficult by showing women holding their breasts awkwardly, which suggested that breastfeeding was difficult and painful, while implying the ease of bottle feeding by showing images of infants holding their own bottles of infant formula.

Then there are the overt marketing tactics formula manufacturers use to promote their products — discounts or coupons, information on how to contact sales representatives, and claims of superior nutritional benefits of formula over breastmilk were also identified on the websites.

Past research has shown that formula manufacturers can influence attitudes about infant feeding and discourage new mothers from breastfeeding their babies. As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO) encourages countries to ban the marketing of formula to consumers, yet the U.S. allows such advertising as long as formulas are not marketed in a way to discourage breastfeeding.

The marketing practices identified in this study would be considered unacceptable according to WHO standards.

The researchers recommend that health professionals advise moms-to-be not to request information on infant formula websites when deciding how they will feed their babies. They also urge that regulation of marketing practices used on infant formula websites and product labeling be strengthened.

The study is published in Public Health Nutrition.