[How Far We Haven’t Come] Proposed Ban on Formula Samples in Hospitals Spurs ‘Nipple Nazi’ Moniker For Lactivists, Again

“How Far We Haven’t Come” is a twice-weekly series by Kim LaCapria, examining the sorry state of women’s issues in America in the current political climate.

Is there a more divisive issue, aside from abortion, among women themselves that sparks more backbiting, more outrage and more colorful language than the breast versus bottle debate?

No matter how far women have moved forward, it also seems that those advances sometimes only mockingly highlight our very many struggles ahead, and breastfeeding rights/support is one area in which it almost feels hopeless sometimes. Now a rekindled debate about formula samples in hospitals shows us exactly how good we are at oppressing ourselves and accepting less female-friendly options in lieu of the ones that would affect meaningful change for women and mothers.

One of the female-oriented blogs I follow (and refer to often in this column) is Jezebel- not because it is a bastion of perfect feminist theory, but because the mix of content is both entertaining and fairer to females in general than the same offerings presented elsewhere. But this morning’s post “Breastfeeding Gestapo Moves to Ban Free Formula Samples from Hospitals” proved that even the more feministy feminists engage in this sort of bullshit without realizing it, and managed to cement the idea in the heads of many yet-to-be mothers that “choice” in regards to feeding babies hinges on access to formula freebies.

In public fora and during debates, breastfeeding advocates and La Leche League are often tarred with the pejorative term “nipple nazis,” so the “gestapo” imagery is not without (damaging) precedent- even if the comparison between secret police that dragged Holocaust victims off into the night and a group of breastfeeding mothers offering grassroots support to women who cannot afford to receive it elsewhere is offensive to more people than I can list within Wordpress’ per-post character limit.

No matter how enlightened about women’s issues, sex, abortion, birth control or the gender gap any individual is, their misconceptions about breastfeeding can spill out sometimes without warning, and this was such a case. America lags far behind our developed nations brethren in breastfeeding support, and numbers bear out how bad the impact of incentives like formula samples is on a successful breastfeeding relationship.

To wit, studies have proven that marketing of formula within hospitals leads to lower rates of breastfeeding at the crucial three and six-month marks– which is precisely why formula companies have fought to keep their money pipeline from such a practice flowing. But what saddens me the most about the argument is that so many women accept the falsehoods lobbed at us and take up for this sucky alternative (a few measly cans of infant formula) instead of demanding what women truly deserve. Instead, we’re willing to accept the obviously false idea put forth by formula companies that offering this option is “choice” and “information” rather than marketing to a financially vulnerable population while borrowing a veneer of medical authority.

The original post that set this rant off as well as the comments left on it reads like a textbook illustration of “all the things people are ignorant about when it comes to marketing formula.” Let’s have a look, shall we?

Lots of women struggle to afford formula, and taking away samples will only hurt poor women who can’t get formula in the first place. To keep this in perspective, even if you chased down every formula sample available to you, you’d still probably get at the very most hopeful, a week’s supply of formula. And hospitals tend to supply- and get a baby hooked upon- the most expensive, pre-blended versions of formula.

Either way, the mother in question is facing a year’s worth of feeding her baby and potentially being unable to. The answer here is not more pittances of free formula, but more robust social programs and on-staff lactation consultants within hospitals to help new mothers establish a breastfeeding relationship- or a long-term subsidy of formula if she so chooses.

formula samples in hospitals LLL

Sometimes women reach a point where they need a break, and having formula in the house means that they can rest while someone else feeds the baby. Indeed, breastfeeding’s first few days can certainly be the opposite of a cakewalk. And if a woman feels the need to rely on feeding supplements, there is no shame in such a decision. But the fact remains that studies prove that a breastfeeding mother plied with formula samples is more likely to have milk supply issues or give up on breastfeeding altogether, netting formula companies thousands of dollars in profits from each diaper swag bag resulting in a successful breastfeeding relationship interruption. Again, the numbers in the study cited above bear this out- the practice of pushing formula within a hospital is not there as an altruistic benefit for the patients.

Not everyone has a job that lets them breastfeed, and free formula samples are nice for working moms to have. This particular argument angers me the most- because as a society that values our children and purports to promote gender equality, we should all be pissed off about this. If you are reading this and have a vagina, it is more likely than not that you will at some point become a mother.

Despite the fact that the baby you bear will also have a father, women have been solely absorbing the “costs,” both tangible and intangible, of new members of society since the first caveworker clocked in at her first cavejob. And until this simple fact- that women are too, sometimes mothers- is accounted for in the workplace, we will continue to bear these costs disproportionately. This includes through lack of career advancement and dropping three grand on formula because it was slightly cheaper than not going back to work at all.

Last but not least, it bears repeating that the World Health Organization recommended that hospitals not participate in formula marketing (for the same reason you don’t go to the Viagra Health Center and eat in the Lipitor Hospital Cafeteria) decades ago, and the US is the only country in the first world not to follow said guideline. You can read the full letter to US hospitals from Public Citizen here.

Do you think offering formula freebies should be banned in hospitals?