Well, the blogosphere got wind of Mayor Bloomberg's little wheeze, and commentary rapidly split down two predictable lines. The "Anti-lactivist camp" (many of the commentators on The Skeptical OB, The Fearless Formula Feeder, Bottle Babies and others) fumed about the proposals. "This is outrageous! It's a woman's right to choose formula--how dare hospitals lecture them about it? Or treat formula as though it was something akin to cigarettes?" The "Lactivist camp" (Kellymom, Best For Babes and all the rest of the crunchosphere--which, by the way, hugely dominate online discourse about motherhood in spite of the beleaguered-minority identity) immediately shot back, "No, this is a great initiative. And the media hasn't reported this properly. Go to the Latch On NYC website--they're not going to lecture women about using formula. And by the way, it's normal hospital practice to lock up items used in the hospital, including food."
Well... with some trepidation, I went to the Latch On NYC website, grimly saying to myself over and over again, "I will not, NOT form an opinion until I have read what the actual initiative itself says...minus the media spin." And even before opening up the Initiative Description and FAQs, it was pretty apparent that there was some serious spin going on. I mean, before long there were news articles appearing which were proclaiming "NYC plans to ban baby formula in hospitals"--absurd.
Well, according to the Initiative Description, the initiative consists of the following:
A call to all NYC maternity hospitals to make a voluntary commitment to support mothers who choose to breastfeed by:So, it looks like the lactivist camp was right to claim that there is some media misreporting--or at least, overextrapolation--going on.
- Enforcing the NYS hospital regulation to not supplement breastfeeding infants with formula
feedings unless medically indicated
- Limiting access to infant formula by hospital staff
- Discontinuing the distribution of promotional or free infant formula
- Prohibiting the display and distribution of infant formula promotional materials in any
- A public awareness campaign to promote the health benefits of breast milk, and to inform women of their right to receive education, encouragement and support to breastfeed their babies if they choose to do so.
I'll be honest--I think much of what is written here falls into the categories of "Good" or "Neutral." I'm agnostic on ban-the-bags--I don't particularly feel that one's human rights are infringed on by not receiving a freebie; I didn't get free formula from my Japanese hospital, either, and didn't feel deprived. I also feel that ethically speaking, it is questionable for hospitals to receive gifts from commercial organizations because it can create conflicts of interest--although I think that if we are going to ban the bags then to be fair we should be banning all gifts and samples to the hospitals. The "unless medically indicated" bit did make me raise my eyebrows for a second... are they proposing that formula feeding should only be permitted for medical reasons, meaning women should not be permitted to formula feed by choice? But a second glance indicates that this is for breastfed infants only (i.e., you don't give formula to babies whose mothers have chosen breastfeeding, unless there is a medical reason to override her wishes). That's a positive thing.
What about the locking-up of formula? Let's take a look at the FAQ page.
What does it mean to restrict access to formula?"Locking up" does sound alarming, but I think it's only fair to point out that hospital supplies including sanitary pads, food and just about everything else are usually locked up, recorded and tracked--in part because patients are usually charged for them. Again I think we are seeing a little bit of the phenomenon of journalism that epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani calls "beating it up." "Making it up" means inventing things up out of thin air. "Beating it up" means presenting true facts in a way which makes them sound as alarming as possible, in order to whip up a bit of hysteria and controversy (which in turn will generate sales and page clicks).
Restricting access to formula means storing formula away from where it is easily visible and accessible to staff and mothers. Access to formula is restricted by both:
Storing formula in a locked location, such as a storage room, cabinet or an automated medication system or, storing formula in a location outside, but reasonably near, the maternity unit...
What does concern me a little, is the following sentence:
...Limiting the number of hospital staff with access to formula by implementing a system to identify which hospital member accessed the formula supply; some examples are a log book, a code or a key system.It may well do so. It also increases the likelihood that mothers are going to be kept waiting God knows how long while waiting for a bottle to appear (as their newborn screams with hunger) because the reality of hospitals is that there are never enough staff and there are constant complaints from new mothers about lack of support already anyway, and restricting. And then you get mothers inadvertently stretching out the periods between feeds as long as possible... and pushing the baby to "finish the bottle" when the formula is finally available, in order to avoid the whole process of trying to actually get hold of a bottle of milk. This isn't promoting good feeding practices or responsive parenting. Rule No. 1 = Feed The Baby.
Restricting access decreases the likelihood that staff will distribute, and inadvertently market, formula.
What about the "lecture with every bottle" bit that is allegedly going to form part of Latch On NYC? Here is the relevant section in the FAQ.
What do we tell our staff to do when mothers (families) request infant formula?Well, first of all, claims that formula feeding is going to be banned from New York hospitals do indeed appear to be a bit of media hype; Latch On NYC does give at least token support for mothers' choice to formula feed. The bit about training staff in breastfeeding support is great.
While breastfeeding is healthier for both mothers and babies, staff must respect a mother’s infant feeding choice. Educating mothers and families about breastfeeding and providing encouragement and support, both prenatally and after birth, is the best way to ensure breastfeeding success in your hospital.
While in the hospital your staff can:
Assess if breastfeeding is going well and encourage the mother to keep trying.
Provide education and support to mothers who are experiencing difficulties.
If the mother still insists on receiving formula, document it in the chart along with the reason and distribute only the amount of formula needed for the feeding.
Train staff in breastfeeding support (CLC, IBCLC) who can be available to assist new mothers at all times regardless of day, night or weekends.
But what does "Assess if breastfeeding is going well and encourage the mother to keep trying" actually mean in practice? If the mother says clearly "I don't want to do this any more," is the nurse required to keep urging her to continue? Where do you draw the line between support and nagging? The initiative gives us no clear answers. Certainly, the use of the word "insist" here is deeply problematic. My understanding is that a person only "insists" on doing something when they continue to state their need after having experienced a considerable amount of pressure to do the opposite.
My guess is that what will actually happen is that these ideas will be interpreted in different ways depending on the hospital staff member in question: staff who are basically respectful of all feeding choices will continue to act accordingly, but staff who have the lactofanatic light in their eyes may well see this as a permission slip to harangue mothers more than they are already doing. I don't think it's much of a stretch to imagine this, given that women are already being harassed in "baby friendly hospitals" for choosing to give formula.
Details, details, details
There is a lot about this initiative that is concerning, but we need to make sure that we are focusing on the right things. The initiative doesn't say anything about giving mothers a "talking-to" about using formula, and it certainly doesn't seek to ban formula. But there are some real problems with some of the things it is outlining. What's more, a lot of the initiative is maddeningly vague, and that openness to different interpretations could result in it becoming a green light for bullies.
There has been a lot of negativity about Latch On NYC in the past few days; if its authors want to rescue its credibility, they need to rewrite the thing, spelling out carefully exactly what they are going to do to support breastfeeding and formula feeding mothers and make their lives easier. Otherwise, the only thing Latch On NYC will achieve will be to add an extra keg of dynamite to the mommy wars.