Locking away free baby formula

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Is it wise to send new moms home without a back-up source of food for their newborns - especially since there’s often too little smart support and skilled lactation advice available for women trying to nurse for the first time? (AP Photo/Zia Mazhar)

Twenty-seven New York City hospitals will soon lock up the baby formula in their maternity wards - the latest move to limit access to the free formula that breastfeeding advocates warn discourages new moms from nursing the natural way. According to a new Time magazine report, plenty of hospitals across the U.S. have voluntarily banned this freebie. This summer state leaders of the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed a measure urging doctors to stop passing formula, coupons and related swag along to their patients.

The goal: Encourage breastfeeding. But is free formula really the problem?  Is it wise to send new moms home without a back-up source of food for their newborns - especially since there’s often too little smart support and skilled lactation advice available for women trying to nurse for the first time?

I am a huge proponent of breastfeeding and nursed my own daughter well past the age of one. I did not breast-feed 100 percent exclusively. I think I managed about 97 percent breast-milk, 3 percent formula.  I know, because I agonized over everything that could get in the way. I worried about pacifiers after reading they could interfere with a baby’s desire to nurse (they were never a problem), was tense about the couple of times a week my daughter was fed pumped milk from a bottle while I was at work (also never a problem), and concerned about the rare occasions when my milk hurt her tummy (she had a dairy-protein sensitivity that meant I had to avoid milk, cheese and butter) and I had to feed her a bottle of formula instead.

But I never agonized more than on our first night home from the hospital when some mysterious glitch meant nursing just wasn’t working. Despite hours of trying very hard and getting the mechanics right, we had a very hungry baby on our hands at 4 a.m.

We were saved by our third call to the nurses’ hotline and wise advice to break out the free formula. I felt like I had completely failed - but the nurse was right. My baby was hungry, somehow nursing wasn’t satisfying her at that point and she needed food.  “You know that free formula they sent you in the mail?” the nurse asked. “If you have it, use it.” I did.  Our lactation consultant agreed when I called her the next day. “When the baby’s hungry, you feed her,” she said. “That’s the most important thing.” And of course, we were told to show up in the pediatrician’s office first thing in the morning to make sure our newborn was OK.  She was.

A couple of bottles of formula that night did not interfere with successful breastfeeding and actually had an unintended benefit: Our baby had no problem accepting breast milk from a bottle when needed.

Perhaps banning free formula will create a demand for better nursing support and instruction. Apparently it can help - New York’s  NYU Langone Medical Center, which has already restricted access to formula, has seen its breast-feeding rate increase from 39 percent to 68 percent. But it takes more than a formula ban to help women get started and stick with it.

Breastfeeding is not intuitive. It’s an art a mom and her baby have to practice to get right. It takes commitment and lots of help. Getting it right also means understanding the gray areas - sometimes, a hungry baby just has to eat. 

What do you think? Should free formula be banned?

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