Flowers will be arriving on moms’ doorsteps this Sunday; cards and homemade presents will be on their breakfast trays. But the newest mothers, in hospitals across the country, will receive a gift that does more harm than good: free starter packs of infant formula.
Breast-feeding offers numerous benefits to babies, including protection against childhood obesity, diabetes, some respiratory and ear infections and sudden infant death syndrome. Mothers who breast-feed have lower risks of breast and ovarian cancer. Yet although three out of four mothers in the United States breast-feed their newborns, fewer than half are still doing so by the time their babies are 6 months old.
The support of hospitals is crucial to getting more women to begin breast-feeding and to do it longer. And yet many hospitals hand out free formula samples, which, according to a 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office, tend to reduce breast-feeding rates among the women who receive them. It’s easy to understand why the hospitals continue to do so: in exchange for giving out samples, formula manufacturers provide hospitals’ nurseries and neonatal intensive care units with much needed free supplies like bottles, nipples, pacifiers, sterile water and more formula.
But the practice is opposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization, among others. Doctors can recommend breast-feeding all they like; when hospitals send new mothers home with a commercial product that often bears scientific claims on the label about digestion and brain development, it sends a very different message. (Breast milk is better, but it’s a rare breast that sports such a label.) Regardless of the medical evidence, the “science” behind formula — not to mention the convenience — can be difficult for mothers to resist.
The truth is that for many women in the United States, where paid maternity leave and workplace support for pumping are rare, and where breast-feeding in public is stigmatized, formula is the easier choice. Many don’t have the option to breast-feed as long or as much as they would like. When hospitals provide formula starter packs, they encourage women to give up on breast-feeding and switch to formula more quickly. Instead, hospitals should help women get breast-feeding off to a good start by adapting baby-friendly policies like helping mothers initiate breast-feeding after birth, allowing mothers and babies to stay in the same room and, most important, ensuring that infant-feeding decisions are free of commercial influence.
Distributing free formula in the hospital is not about empowering women, helping them make informed choices or providing them with needed resources in tough economic times — all arguments made by supporters of the free samples. Companies provide them for the same reason they distribute swag to celebrities: it drives sales.
The infant formula market is big and growing; last month, Nestlé announced that it would buy Pfizer’s infant nutrition division for almost $12 billion. Even as hospitals try to reduce the influence of industry by prohibiting pharmaceutical companies from distributing gifts and free lunches to doctors and medical students, they continue to allow these wealthy and powerful manufacturers to promote their goods in maternity wards.
Some hospitals are beginning to push back. Sixteen percent of birthing hospitals now refuse to hand out free samples. Massachusetts nearly banned the practice in its hospitals at the end of 2005, but at the request of Mitt Romney, then the governor, the state’s Public Health Council reversed the decision. Last fall, Rhode Island became the first state to end the practice. And on Wednesday, the New York City health department began encouraging hospitals to stop the handouts. More should follow suit.
This Mother’s Day, we should remember that birth is a time to celebrate new life, not a time to corner market share. The true gift to new mothers would be to allow them to return home empty-handed, bearing only their babies and their own best intentions.