There was a time when parents of newborn babies would be presented a gift from a manufacturer of infant formula — a gift containing formula samples and coupons for discounts of the same formula at the grocery store. (Sometimes they added other goodies, like a stuffed teddy bear, a book on infant care, or a diaper bag!) Some parents liked these freebies. Even those who left the hospital breastfeeding their new babies appreciated the other goodies, as well as the “just in case” formula samples. It was a clever marketing strategy. However, recent research suggests that those days of free samples may be coming to an end.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers breastfeed their babies exclusively for the first six months of life. (As we’ve learned here on The PediaBlog, it’s best to begin spoon-feeding pureed foods beginning at six months old.) However, only about 19% of American babies are currently fed according to this guideline. Even before baby foods are given, formula is being introduced as a supplement to, or a replacement for, breast milk, before the six-month mark.
Various studies have shown that infant formula discharge packs hamper successful breastfeeding. For the past several years, health advocacy groups and physician organizations like the AAP have pushed for a stop to the distribution of these discharge packs. Hospitals and newborn nurseries have apparently been listening. A study published in Pediatrics last month found that the percentage of hospitals distributing infant formula discharge packs declined dramatically from 73% in 2007 to 32% in 2013. The largest decreases were seen in teaching hospitals and obstetrical units with more than 5,000 births per year. In Pennsylvania, fewer than half of hospitals with newborn nurseries distribute discharge packs; for 22 other states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, fewer than one-quarter distribute the samples.
It’s important to note that all newborn nurseries still have samples of formula to give babies if their mothers either can’t, or choose not to, breastfeed. These situations are where infant formula discharge packs would be most appropriate, and welcomed, by mothers. But for mothers who are committed to nursing their babies for the first six months (and beyond), there is no advantage for them to bring home a bag of formula.
There are other obstacles, of course, that can cause new mothers who really want to breastfeed to abandon the effort before six months of age, including family pressure (there’s only so much a first-time mom can take when grandma is scolding her for “starving the baby”), the pressure to get back to the workplace (12 weeks of paid family leave sounds about right to me), or the pressure to find privacy, cleanliness, and respect in the workplace in order to pump and save breast milk. In my opinion, those three reasons for why new mothers drop breastfeeding are more important than whether or not they receive some gift samples of formula before they leave the hospital with a newborn baby. Still, anything that promotes successful breastfeeding is a step in the right direction — for mothers, for babies, and for society.