PUBLISHED: 11:15 EST, 10 April 2012 | UPDATED: 11:46 EST, 10 April 2012
Breastfeeding campaign groups are demanding that hospitals stop giving away free infant formula to new mothers.
Dozens of consumer and health organizations sent letters to more than 2,600 hospitals across America yesterday, asking facilities to immediately stop distributing the free samples of formula.
Giving formula to new parents discourages some new mothers from breastfeeding, the groups said in a letter sent by the advocacy group Public Citizen.
The groups are also petitioning the $4billion infant formula industry’s leaders – Abbott Laboratories, Mead Johnson Nutrition Co and Nestle SA – to halt the practice of giving away free samples to hospitals.
The move is part of a renewed effort to boost U.S. rates of breastfeeding, which is known to have a wide range of health benefits from reducing obesity to boosting immunity and is recommended for at least a baby’s first six months of life.
However, formula makers and hospitals defend the free samples, saying they are meeting women’s needs.
‘We can’t forget that some moms even though they plan to breastfeed, they either can’t or they decide not to,’ said International Formula Council Executive Vice President Mardi Mountford.
‘We believe they want more information, not less.’
The consumer and health groups said in their letters that a hospital’s involvement could sway women and that giving away formula samples worked against their other efforts to support breast feeding.
Rather than promoting breastfeeding, the packages of formula could encourage women to give up nursing their infants instead of seeking help and support, the groups said.
Just 14 percent of 6-month-old infants are exclusively breastfed, something U.S. health officials want to increase to about 26 percent by 2020.
Still, breastfeeding in the U.S. is increasing, according to the World Health Organization, partly because more hospitals offer breastfeeding support and allow babies to stay in their mothers’ hospital rooms.
About 66per cent of hospitals still give away formula samples, down from nearly 73per cent in 2007, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released last year found.
Some hospitals have already stopped formula giveaways altogether, and a few states and cities have banned the practice, including California, Texas and New York City.
New mothers are instead given a breast-milk bottle cooler, disposable nursing pads, breastfeeding tips and a baby T-shirt in their bags.
‘We can’t forget that some moms even though they plan to breastfeed, they either can’t or they decide not to’
Breastfeeding coaches then accompany the mothers at bedside ‘to help initiate breastfeeding within one hour of delivery,’ where they also give out free breast pumps, making hospital-grade electric breast pumps available to mothers whose newborns have to remain in the hospital.
Some believe, however, that the campaign to promote breastfeeding makes women who find nursing hard or unpleasant feel guilty and inadequate.
Women who return to work sooner after childbirth often find it difficult or impossible to continue breastfeeding due to lack of time, space, privacy and support for pumping and breastfeeding.
Reports also highlight the effects of class differences on breastfeeding, which lags among lower-income women, according to government data.
Many corporations provide lactation rooms for employees to nurse their children, while working-class women often find it all but impossible to pump breast milk at their jobs.
Breastfeeding mothers can also face negativity from their partners, relatives, friends, bosses, co-workers and society in general.
In 2009, one new mother, who became depressed after she was unable to breastfeed her baby properly, fell to her death off the roof of her New York City apartment.
Denying women formula samples also highlights the country’s socioeconomic concerns.
Formula is expensive, and samples are viewed as helping many women, in particular single mothers and those with low incomes.
The groups advocating the ban added that once the free samples are gone, families end up spending between $800 and $2,800 a year on formula.
However Alan D. Aviles, the chief executive of the Health and Hospitals Corporation, rejected the argument that low-income women can benefit from the free samples of baby formula.
He told the New York Times: ‘From my perspective, that’s a bogus argument. You get samples that are simply intended as a marketing ploy that are intended to sway you to one brand or another.
‘The reality is that there’s nothing cheaper than feeding a child breast milk,’ he added.
The American Hospital Association responded to the letters in a statement today, saying its members draft policies based on mothers’ preferences.
While they agree breastfeeding is best, ‘having information and resources available for mothers who choose not to breastfeed is a responsible and supportive approach for the hospital.’
At the end of the day, whether to breastfeed or not will always ultimately remain the mother’s choice.