September 26th, 2011

Do hospitals' freebies undermine breast-feeding?

Medical XPress

Jessica Ewald brought more than a new baby boy home when she gave birth earlier this year. Like many new moms, she got a hospital goody bag, with supplies including free infant formula and formula coupons.

“We gave it away the moment we came home because I said I’m not having that in our house,” Ewald said.

Ewald, 32, of Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., is the daughter of a breast-feeding activist who fought to get those goody bags out of hospitals. Ewald was taught early on that “breast is best,” and even though as a teen she rolled her eyes when her mom asked pregnant women about nursing, Ewald knew she’d choose breast over bottle when her own time came.

Borrowing a line from a blogger, Ewald says hospitals sending newborns home with formula “is like giving somebody divorce papers at their wedding.” It can really undermine a woman’s determination to breast-feed, she said.

The head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shares her concern.

“Hospitals need to greatly improve practices to support mothers who want to breast-feed,” Dr. Thomas Frieden said last month in releasing a CDC report card on breast-feeding. It showed that less than 5 percent of U.S. infants are born in “baby-friendly” hospitals that fully support breast-feeding, and that 1 in 4 infants receive formula within hours of birth.

Routinely offering new moms free formula is among practices the CDC would like to end. In some cases, hospitals agree to give out those freebies in exchange for getting free supplies for special-needs infants, Frieden said.

Exactly how many U.S. hospitals hand out formula is unclear. The American Hospital Association and the International Formula Council, a trade group for formula makers, do not keep statistics and formula companies contacted for this story declined to comment.

A nationwide study of more than 3,000 U.S. hospitals and maternity centers published last year in the Journal of Human Lactation found that 91 percent sent new moms home with free formula in 2006-07. A smaller 2010 study of 1,239 hospitals suggests that the practice has decreased, although most - 72 percent - still offered formula. That study is being released Monday in October’s Pediatrics.

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