Top Hospitals Putting an End to Formula Marketing to New Moms

By Rachel Walden |

Despite a wealth of evidence that breastfeeding provides the most health benefits for infants, many barriers — including rigid work conditions and lack of family or community support — can interfere with a woman’s ability to start breastfeeding, or to keep breastfeeding for at least six months.

Health advocates have long criticized the popular hospital practice of distributing infant formula to new mothers, because doing so descreases the length of time that women breastfeed — even when they have indicated a desire to try breastfeeding, and sometimes instead of providing lactation support (read this previous post, which discusses a report on Chicago hospitals in low-income neighborhoods).

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 77 percent of infants in the United States start out being breastfed, which is an increase over recent years, yet fewer than half are still breastfeeding at the six-month mark.

Many hospitals have banned pharmaceutical or other industries from providing marketing materials directly to doctors, in order to avoid conflicts of interest, but many hospitals still provide free formula samples directly to patients.

A new report from Public Citizen, however, suggests that more of the top hospitals in the country are agreeing to limit distribution.

The consumer advocacy organization looked at the top hospitals in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, both those with the gynecology specialty and maternal/newborn services and those on the general Honor Roll. It then surveyed those hospitals about their policies and practices, and checked against data from the national Ban the Bags campaign, which grew out of a Massachusetts effort to stop aggressive formula marketing.

Some of Public Citizen’s key findings:

  • Sixty-seven percent of top gynecology hospitals in gynecology reported not giving out bags sponsored by formula companies, formula samples, or other formula-related promotional materials
  • An additional 11 percent (5 of 45) limited samples and sponsored bags to those who request them, moms who are already planning to formula feed, or to Neonatal Intensive Care Unit patients
  • Eighty-two percent (14 of 17) of the best overall hospitals reported having a policy or practice against distributing these materials

Public Citizen recommends that the remaining hospitals on these lists also ban formula distribution, and discuss other interventions that public health departments and state legislatures can take to restrict the practice. As the report notes:

Numerous studies show that women are likely to breastfeed less, and for shorter durations, if they receive formula samples and promotional materials in hospital discharge packs. Formula bag distribution effectively influences new mothers to use formula because it sends a powerful message that hospitals endorse formula feeding, even where breastfeeding in hospitals is promoted.

One major effort to improve the support for breastfeeding in hospitals is the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, endorsed by several major medical organizations. The Initiative sets standards for baby-friendliness, including breastfeeding support. The Initiative’s guidelines and evaluation criteria states that in baby-friendly hospitals, staff members should not receive donations from breast milk substitute providers, and mothers and their families should not be given marketing materials for formula or gift packs containing formula. The Baby-Friendly principles have been endorsed by several major medical organizations.

Ban the Bags provides a toolkit for advocating against these formula sample bags, which can be downloaded from its website, as a resource for taking action in your own community. As Ban the Bags puts it: “Hospitals should market health, and nothing else.”

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One Comment

  1. JB says:

    I am constantly amazed at how most feminists insist on supporting only a certain spectrum of choices. You advocate “choice”, but only if that choice includes natural birth and breastfeeding.

    As a feminist and an ardent believer in a woman’s right to decide what happens to her body and her baby, I have to say that I don’t quite agree with this feminist “celebration” of the the alienation of formula.

    Let me begin by saying that I completely understand and agree that breastfeeding has benefits. But not every woman can breastfeed and frankly, not every woman wants to breastfeed. Assuming that these women are lazy and uneducated, and pushing an ideology on them is insulting and patronising. They are HER breasts and nobody has the right to force or shame her into doing something with them that she doesn’t want to do.

    The idea of hospitals promoting informed decisions and giving better support to women who want to breastfeed is indeed, fantastic. However, what you have failed to mention in your article is that these efforts often become so zealous that they marginalise women who don’t want to or can’t breastfeed for any reason. There are hospitals that are now locking up formula and refusing to let women bring in their own, effectively forcing unwilling women to breastfeed.

    Even hospitals that aren’t as fanatic as the above are increasingly bullying new mothers to breastfeed irrespective of whether or not they want to, just so that the hospitals can attain the much coveted “Baby Friendly” status.

    No woman should have to explain and justify decisions pertaining to her own body – this includes breastfeeding. It is abhorrent that hospitals in states like New York are now mandating lectures for women every time they request a bottle for their baby.

    I would also like to say, that for a feminist website, you have a rather low opinion of women. Do you honestly think that women make decisions on how to feed their child based on free handouts? And do you really believe that women are so weak-willed and easily led so as fall prey to the so-called marketing tactics employed by formula manufacturers?

    Let me tell you about the other side of the ban on formula marketing. In the UK, most stores refuse to allow women to use coupons for formula. They can’t use any discount and/or store card points to pay for formula and they can’t gain any points for the purchase of formula either.

    Do you know how much of a help the above concessions would be for women who hail from economically disadvantaged backgrounds? Or are they not entitled to make a choice about their own body just because they don’t have enough money to pay for it?

    Even the Bags that you are so pleased to see banned would be of immense help to a financially disadvantaged new mom who didn’t want to or couldn’t breastfeed.

    If you were actually looking for a balanced debate on this subject, then you would also be a voice for women who don’t want to or can’t breastfeed. You would be outraged to see formula-feedng mums being shamed or bullied into breastfeeding.

    Instead of celebrating systems that limit the choice of one group of women to promote the choice of another, why don’t we advocate a system which actually listens to women? A system where if a mother says she wants to breastfeed then she will be supported and respected. And likewise, a system which will also respect and support women who choose to formula feed. Why can’t we advocate that? Why must we push decisions and agendas on women? Why can’t we trust them to make a choice and then respect it?