by Jeff Clemetson, Editor
Only in America can something as natural as breastfeeding require legislation. In his most recent push to make New York City more healthy, Mayor Bloomberg has instituted a policy to have NYC hospitals push new mothers toward breastfeeding their children, presumably from two 16 oz breasts instead on one 32 oz super-sized mammary.
Bloomberg’s plan, known as Latch on NYC, will take the unprecedented step of having hospitals lock formula up like other drugs, making nurses who want to offer formula have to sign for it. Mothers who request formula will also have to receive a mandated lecture on the benefits of breast milk over formula. Also, hospitals are encouraged to not offer gift bags packed with swag branded with formula company logos.
So far, Bloomberg’s Latch on NYC initiative is purely voluntary for hospitals to participate in as they please – 27 of the city’s 40 hospitals have signed on to the plan. But if precedent means anything, NYC may follow in the footsteps of other states and municipalities that have enacted ordinances to curb the use of formula. In 2011 Rhode Island was the first state to ban free gift bags of formula at hospitals, followed closely by Massachusetts.
Laws protecting breastfeeding are fairly new in the United States. In 1994 there were only five states that had laws dealing with a woman’s right to breastfeed. Today there are breastfeeding laws in 45 states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Most of the laws deal with breastfeeding as it pertains to public places, workplace discrimination, jury duty and custody and visitation rights. What makes Bloomberg’s initiative and the state laws in Rhode Island and Massachusetts so unique are their hard stance against formula promotion. And it may be for good reason.
Around 77 percent of children born between 1936 and 1940 were breastfed, according to studies conducted by formula manufacturer Ross Laboratories. By 1970, only 25 percent of mothers breastfed their children and for those who did, they only fed their children a breast-milk-only diet for an average of 2.2 months, down from 4.5 months. The growing trend towards formula feeding during that period had a lot to do with women’s changing roles in the workplace, but also with how formula was represented, and marketed, to new mothers.
In response to the diminishing use of natural breast milk, organizations like the World Health Organization, La Leche League and various other health and parenting groups have campaigned to bring back breastfeeding as the preferred way to nourish newborn children. It is a campaign that has not had its fair share of controversy.
A recent cover of Time magazine depicted a mother breastfeeding a toddler with the caption “Are You Mom Enough?” raised the eyebrows of many critics who complained that the push for more natural feeding didn’t take into account the pressures that single mothers and the working poor have to deal with when it comes to raising children. They argued that the trendy push for natural childbirths and breastfeeding is a privilege for the well to do and that calling out working mothers who have little time off work and little resources shouldn’t be singled out as not “mom enough” to properly raise their children.
There is little doubt that breastfeeding is ideal for both mother and child. Studies have shown that breast milk contains antibodies that help children fight disease and that women who breastfeed have a reduced risk of breast cancer. Initiatives like the one Mayor Bloomberg proposed that educate mothers on the benefits of breastfeeding and legislation that makes breastfeeding in public and at work have helped bring the rates of breastfed children back up in the US. However, for some mothers, formula is still the only conceivable option because of pressures from work and a perceived stigma of baring it all in public. Hopefully we as a society can help bring about changes in attitudes to make this more natural choice available to all.