New mothers are excited and nervous about taking their babies home from the hospital. Most mothers intend to breastfeed and learn how to nurse at the hospital. So when hospitals market infant formula to moms as they go home, they send the wrong message about the importance of breastfeeding. Formula marketing leads mothers to lose confidence in their ability to feed babies only breastmilk.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than half of U.S. hospitals give commercial infant formula samples to new mothers. Hospitals typically hand out these samples regardless of whether moms intend to breastfeed. There is abundant evidence that these free samples lead mothers to formula feed sooner and more frequently than they intended.
The good news is that leading hospitals are following the best scientific advice and ending “free” infant formula samples. A new report by Public Citizen and Ban the Bags shows that 82 percent of the U.S. News and World Report’s top-ranked hospitals, and more than two-thirds of the highest-ranked hospitals in gynecology, no longer distribute commercial formula discharge bags with samples.
Among these leading hospitals are Pennsylvania’s Magee Women’s Hospital of UPMC, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Lehigh Valley Hospital and Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. UPMC Mercy and Western Pennsylvania Hospital are moving in the right direction by eliminating the distribution of formula bags to breastfeeding women. However, we encourage them to end formula marketing entirely.
Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is far behind the trend of ending formula samples. The CDC’s report on maternity- and infant-care practices in Pennsylvania found that only “24 percent of facilities adhere to clinical and public health recommendations against distributing formula company discharge packs” (which include free formula samples). It’s time for all of Pennsylvania’s hospitals to end a practice that sends a message to new moms that medical professionals endorse formula feeding.
The “free” infant formula samples that hospitals hand out come with very real costs. In-hospital formula marketing contributes to premature breastfeeding discontinuation — contravening the consensus of health care experts that breastfeeding gives children the best start and shields them from infections and, later, higher risks of obesity, asthma, diabetes and SIDS. Mothers also benefit, with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, obesity, ovarian cancer, post-partum depression and bladder infections.
As for formula-feeding mothers, as a result of brand loyalty developed after receiving hospital samples of expensive brands from mega-corporations such as Abbott, Mead Johnson and Nestle, they spend an additional $700 a year on formula, on average, than mothers who buy less expensive brands.
Doctors may recommend formula feeding to mothers who are unable to breastfeed for medical reasons, and some mothers choose not to breastfeed. However, when hospitals distribute formula samples, they participate in the marketing efforts of formula companies at the expense of their patients. New mothers and their babies deserve a commercial-free hospital experience.
Lisa McCloskey, a registered nurse and board-certified lactation consultant, is vice chair of the Pennsylvania Breastfeeding Coalition. Eva Seidelman is a researcher at Public Citizen, a national consumer protection group.