Monday, September 26, 2011

Free Formula in Hospitals on the Decline

At Time, this article looks at a decrease in free formula gift bags given to new mothers in hospitals.

I had previously written on my own experience with a hospital gift bag. Even though the bag I was given was clearly labeled as being for breastfeeding mothers, it was chock full of formula samples and coupons. And that makes sense--it was provided by Similac.

The Time article explains that many hospitals are given free formula in exchange for handing out the bags, which should raise our suspicions. Obviously, the formula makers are making money in this exchange, or they wouldn't be doing it. In the article, a representative from Ban the Bags explains that increasing profits for formula makers is sometimes the equivalent of sabotaging breastfeeding: "There's a fixed number of births every year, so the only way to sell more formula is to sell less breast-feeding."

Also noted is the fact that "research has shown that free formula given to new moms tends to result in poorer breast-feeding outcomes." And I remember being exhausted and frustrated when my daughter wasn't gaining enough weight in the first few weeks of her life. I remember feeling like a failure as the doctor demanded I come back in three days for another weight check. I remember looking at her and feeling guilty, and then thinking about those free formula samples sitting in the other room. I had done enough research to know that using them would, statistically speaking, further hinder my chances for breastfeeding success. I knew that, but I was still tempted, and part of that temptation was justified by thinking of the context that gave me those bottles of formula. "Surely," part of my brain rationalized, "the hospital wouldn't have given them to you if they weren't okay to use."

And they were "okay" to use. I don't want to demonize women for choosing or needing formula, but it wasn't okay that the hospital had given me, someone who had explicitly told them I was committed to breastfeeding, several bottles of formula before ever even heading home. It wasn't okay to subtly undermine the decision I had made and voiced, to plant the seeds of doubt, to suggest "well, maybe that'll work out, but probably not, so here's a back-up plan."

I didn't use those bottles of formula, and I'm glad for that.

I'm also glad for the statistics in the Time article. The number of hospitals who have stopped handing out the samples has doubled since 2007 (three-quarters of hospitals still give them out, but progress is progress).

There are also a handful of hospitals striving for the Baby-Friendly USA designation, which requires rooming-in and formula that is restricted to medically necessary cases (unless mothers explictly ask for it).

Before I had my daughter, I would have read this article and thought "What's the big deal?" I would have wondered why women were so weak-willed that a little gift bag could totally derail their plans, and I would have thought that their plans weren't that well thought-out or important to begin with if that was the case.

I would have been wrong. The first few weeks of my child's life were some of the most vulnerable moments I've ever experienced. The responsibility is huge, and the feeling that I could mess it up was almost overwhelming. These gift bags are subtle, certainly, but they are strategic marketing, strategic marketing aimed at people in some of the moments they're least likely to be critical consumers. I'm glad to see this trend declining, and I hope it keeps going.

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