Tuesday, July 31, 2012

About Those Formula Freebies and Mayor Bloomberg...

By now, just about every breastfeeding blog I read has made some kind of commentary or another on New York City Mayor Bloomberg's new program for breastfeeding promotion in NYC hospitals. Part of the Latch-On NYC initiative, this voluntary program requires that participating hospitals lock up formula, not routinely give out formula samples and formula-branded paraphernalia to new parents, prohibit the display of formula promotional materials in the hospital, and conform to the New York State hospital regulation that exclusively breastfed babies not be given formula supplementation unless medically indicated. The program is expected to raise breastfeeding rates in participating hospitals because research shows that women who are given formula samples by their doctors or in the hospital are 3.5 times more likely to be supplementing with formula by two weeks of age. If formula is kept under wraps, and new mothers receive education about breastfeeding before their babies are given any formula, the thinking goes, breastfeeding rates will rise and the overall health of the population will improve. Hand-in-hand with this is news of an AAP resolution that pediatricians should not routinely hand out free formula samples to patients, for the same reasons.

I have been reading every blog post I've been linked to, taking in almost every comment on all the major breastfeeding and parenting blogs I frequent, and I still don't quite know how I feel about this initiative. It sounds like they're basically trying to get NYC hospitals to conform to the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative standards without going through the BFHI certification process. I gave birth to GI in a Baby-Friendly hospital, and I felt that the breastfeeding support there was excellent. Of course, I went in intending to breastfeed. If I had gone in less certain, uneducated, or sure I wanted to use formula, I'm not sure how I would have felt. I didn't need or want to ask for formula, so I don't know what kind of "lecture" or "education" I would have gotten had I made the request. I didn't have any problem nursing or producing milk, so I don't know how I would have been treated had I genuinely felt my baby was starving and needed formula supplementation. Because I've been lucky enough to be able to nurse with relatively few problems, and because I'm extremely pro-breastfeeding, well educated about breastfeeding (I literally wrote a book on it), and because I wasn't going to let anything or anyone stand in my way of breastfeeding, I didn't need to think about "the other side."

I often wonder whether I would have been able to breastfeed NJ had I given birth to him in a hospital like the one where I had SB and GI. Rather than jumping straight to formula when there was the slightest hint of a problem, if they had been more supportive of breastfeeding and, more importantly, had been more supportive specifically of me in my situation, would I have left the hospital breastfeeding instead of with an extra case of formula? It's very hard to say. My husband and I were discussing this last night (in the context of the above-mentioned controversy). His perspective and memories of those early days are different from mine, but we both remember that the lactation consultants who visited me were quite unhelpful. While it may have been true that many women who experience postpartum hemorrhage have difficulty with their milk supply, and while it may have been true that pumping often would help bring in my milk, what I really needed was to spend lots of time skin-to-skin with NJ, nurse him on demand, and be forced to care for him. Yes, I was weak. Yes, I had lost a lot of blood. Yes, I was in pain. But NJ was healthy and strong, had a great latch, and, with a little help, I probably could have initiated breastfeeding while in the hospital and breastfed him several times a day during that four-day stay rather than allowing the nursery nurses, my husband, my mom, and my visitors to feed him for me. It's probable that he would have needed a few bottles (or to be fed via syringe, perhaps?) on the first day when I was fairly down-and-out from blood loss, but on the second day? The third? Through the night? I do remember some good practices, such as telling me to save whatever I did pump and that they could give him that in a bottle instead of formula. They did provide me with a pump and show me how to use it. They did have lactation consultants come every day. But I constantly feel, looking back, that the advice the LCs gave me was, while not necessarily wrong, unhelpful or misleading. If you straight out tell a woman she won't have enough milk, why should she even bother to try? And if you don't tell her or her husband that formula is not, in fact, equal to breastmilk, then why shouldn't she just go straight to formula to begin with?

What's missing in all of this, to me, is that education prenatally is vitally important. The decision to breastfeed can't necessarily be made in the postpartum haze. The desire to stick with it is lowest when in the throes of newborn nursing, and the temptation to use that free formula is highest at the most critical period in the breastfeeding relationship. I know this. I've lived it. You need to walk into that hospital determined to breastfeed. You need a supportive hospital staff, from the OB or midwife to the delivery nurse to the postpartum nurses. You need lactation consultants on hand 24/7 (not just during business hours!). You need good, solid breastfeeding information. And you need to know that you are going to be respected for whatever choices you make.

The loudest complaints against this program seem to be from two basic viewpoints. One is the women who never wanted to breastfeed and don't liked feeling "shamed" or "guilted" by the hospital for their choice. The other is the women who desperately wanted to breastfeed but, for whatever reason, needed to supplement with formula in the early days and struggled long and hard with the decision. Both feel that formula samples are helpful, especially those that only needed a can or two of supplements before being able to go on to exclusively breastfeed. Both feel that being lectured or educated by hospital staff before someone will go get them a bottle for their starving babies is shaming and unfair.

The thing is, I agree with them, too. If my baby is starving because I can't produce enough colostrum or milk to satisfy him (please note that this is rare), then I need to be able to give him something else. If the hospital staff balk at giving me a bottle of formula to feed him, and I have to sign a form or justify my request every time my baby gets hungry, it's going to make me feel even worse and more inadequate. Support doesn't mean just patting a woman on the back and telling her she's doing a good job breastfeeding. Support means sitting down with a woman and figuring out what she wants, what her goals are, and then helping her get there. A good IBCLC knows this, and a good IBCLC will know when formula supplementation is necessary and how best to introduce, use, and wean off of those supplements, if possible. Having a nurse who's had a little bit of lactation training come in and tell you once again that formula isn't as good as breastmilk, and maybe you should have another go at feeding from the breast before you give a bottle, is only going to make a frustrated mother more flustered and upset. We need a balance.

I'm in favor of locking up the formula, but I'm also in favor of giving it to any mother who asks for it. I'm in favor of banning the gift bags and the formula-branded handouts, but I'm also in favor of giving unbranded formula to mothers who need it (in the hospital). I'm in favor of good breastfeeding support and information, but I'm also in favor of education in the proper preparation and use of formula, if a mother chooses to use it. I'm in favor of pediatricians having formula samples on hand to help out mothers who need it, but I'm also in favor of pediatric offices having lactation consultants on staff to help mothers who are struggling. Balance.

We need a more comprehensive solution. While restricting access to free formula will increase breastfeeding rates among those who are on the fence (that's been proven), it will not help those women who truly need it or who adamantly refuse to breastfeed. We need information and education throughout women's lives, and especially during pregnancy, to help them learn about breastfeeding before there's a squalling baby in their arms. We need postpartum support, especially for those women who are going back to work. We need support for pumping in the workplace. We need better, longer maternity leave. We need a cultural shift.

If there is one thing I know, unquestionably, it's that the more babies who are breastfed, the better. Banning formula freebies in hospitals and pediatric offices is a step in the right direction, but it's not the only step.

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