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Bill Belew has raised 2 bi-cultural kids, now 34 and 30. And he and his wife are now parenting a 3rd, Mia, who is 8.

In Indonesia, a dads army is being mobilized to help fight against aggressive marketing by some baby milk substitute companies. Unlike the old comedy series in the UK, this is a deadly serious message.

I read about this a bit ago.  I understand how a baby milk substitute company can get its sales in developing countries like Indonesia: A friend of mine = worked on the marketing campaign for one of them just a few years ago. The campaign she worked on took the company from being a relative unknown to a market leader in Indonesia in just two weeks. But, after the birth of my first child the hospital fed him formula milk without my permission. It made me furious, and at that point my conscience was triggered. I’ve since left the world of breast milk formula marketing behind me.

After that experience in the hospital I thought to myself, if we can create a marketing campaign that is so successful for a baby milk substitute product then why can’t we create a campaign for breast-feeding, to show the huge benefits that it can have. In Indonesia there has been a  start: some dads got tgether founded AyahAsi (the breastfeeding fathers association) but there is still a huge job to be done. It’s one that the rest of the world needs to join us on.

Let me clear: I’m not against formula milk in and of itself. There are times when it is needed and beneficial to the infant. What I’m against is some of the marketing campaigns around it, particularly in countries where the majority of people are unable to make an informed choice between formula milk and breast-feeding. I’ve since turned down agency work that was to work with these milk products. There’s plenty of this work out there – these companies are gathering a lot of the brightest strategists in Indonesia to work for them: we’re an emerging economy and the fourth biggest population in the world, so why wouldn’t they be attracted to the country.

But, in Indonesia this choice between breast milk substitutes and breast-feeding really can be life and death. Save the Children’s new report shows that 95 babies could be saved every hour if they were breastfed in just the first hour of life. The Indonesian government themselves have calculated that we can save 30,000 babies’ lives every year if they were breastfed. In Indonesia access to clean water to make up the formula is very limited and all too often people don’t have the education to be able to make an informed decision themselves.

Even my wife and I, with the relative luxury of our middle class education and middle class income, found ourselves with a lack of information about breastfeeding. When my wife became pregnant with our first child our friends encouraged us to do exclusive breast-feeding. We were keen to give it a try but after she gave birth in the hospital we felt lost – we didn’t know what do next, no one had given us any information about breast-feeding and what to do after the birth. In Indonesia it’s common for the baby to be taken away after the birth so that the mother can rest. When they bought our baby back we found that he didn’t seem hungry, just sleepy. I’d been seeing a logo around the hospital that was all too familiar for me and when I really pushed the staff to find out why my son wasn’t hungry it turned out that they’d given him formula milk without our permission.

I was angry, but most of all because I knew what they were probably getting in return for giving that formula milk to my son. I said we’d buy some formula to keep the midwives happy but then we took him home and after searching online for breastfeeding advice my wife went on to exclusively breast-fed him.

That moment in the hospital really triggered my conscience. I only realised what was going on because I’d helped create the marketing tricks for that milk substitute product – if my wife and I, who had the good fortune to have a good education and be able to afford formula, could still end up being duped by the hospital what chance was there for the many, many others in Indonesia who aren’t fortunate enough to have this education and insider knowledge of marketing.

It was at that point that I thought to myself, where is the exciting marketing campaign to raise awareness of the huge benefits that breast-feeding can have?

Like many Indonesians, I’m a huge fan of twitter and so took to the tweet-waves to ask this question. Through twitter I found AIMI – a group of online Mums who provide mother-to-mother support around breast-feeding and also campaign around aggressive corporate marketing practices. Through AIMI & twitter I met other Dads who were keen to help promote the benefits of breast-feeding and show Dads how they can support their wives. So, eight of us founded AyahAsi, the Indonesian breast-feeding Dads association.

Through the market research I’d read in my old job I knew that one of the best ways to reach women was to reach out to their husband, so that’s one of the key things we try to do with AyahAsi. We try to make it both practical and fun. And we also want to avoid that tag ‘lactivists’ – painting people as radicals isn’t helpful here. Instead, we focus on what we know appeals to men: the practical side of things. We recently published a bestselling book which had plenty of checklists and flow charts to appeal to the man. We have a chart showing the financial benefits of breast-feeding and another showing what foods you’d have to eat to get the nutrition benefits of just one feed of breast-milk.

We’re also a little bit naughty – in Indonesia it’s taboo to show a breast or a nipple so we try and break down that barrier. We tell people how we’re not just a fan of breastfeeding, we’re a really fan of the container of the breast milk – we like it’s casing! We need as a country to get past taboos and be able to talk about this: to talk about nipples, breast massages and how sex can help increase your wife’s level of oxcytocin, which is essential for breast-feeding.

Aside from our book we’re trying to promote breastfeeding on social media; it’s free and it’s the only tool we have, in contrast to those companies who have a huge media spend available to them.

There have been some positive changes in Indonesia: the government now stresses that babies should be left with their mothers after birth and that breast-feeding should be encouraged as soon as possible. But, there’s still a huge way to go – Zoe Williams’ recent expose of formula milk companies’ activities in Indonesia rather depressingly reinforced that.

It’s a fight we must carry on though, and it’s really not just one for mums either. Us dads can have a hugely powerful role to play, as can anyone with a voice online. We’ll never have the big bucks of the companies but as social media and mobile internet becomes even wider spread in developing countries it will give us the power to use our collective voices online to ensure that it’s not just the corporate marketing campaign that people see.

Talk to Bill and others about their experiences raising bi-cultural Japanese-American kids.

Bill Belew

Daddy and Christian.

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