There's no doubt that breastfeeding has a distinct set of health benefits for both babies and mothers, and that it's a viable, healthy choice for many families. But just as experts know that breastmilk can help protect babies from ailments like ear infections, leukemia, obesity, and SIDS, it's also clear that the decision not to breastfeed — for whatever reason — is just as valid. That's why news that the New York Department of Health will no longer provide new moms with formula in order to encourage breastfeeding could seem like an indictment of moms who are unable or unwilling to go the "breast is best" route. While it's undoubtedly well-intentioned, the state's new formula goodie bag regulation may not be exactly helpful for all new parents.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that women breastfeed their babies exclusively for the first six months. But in New York, only 16.9 percent of babies had tasted nothing but their mothers' milk those first months of life in 2011, according the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seeking to increase those statistics, and, ideally, improve health outcomes in general, the New York Department of Health announced this month that all of the state's birthing hospitals would adopt practices to ensure women have the tools and the education to successfully breastfeed their newborns.
Starting in January 2017, all 126 of these facilities will no longer distribute goodie bags containing formula and formula marketing materials, because access to breastmilk substitutes lead to a shorter period of breastfeeding, according to a press release. The other changes to protocol include promoting skin-to-skin contact between mothers and babies right after birth and requiring medical care providers to discuss with new parents the risks associated with pacifier use.
"The brain doubles in size the first year of life," Dr. Ruth Lawrence of the University of Rochester Medical Center told local ABC affiliate WHAM, discussing the upcoming implementation of the changes. "The nutrients needed are in mother's milk, they're not in formula. The mom’s recovery is more physiological from her birth if she breastfeeds."
But breastfeeding is a demanding process, and there are many reasons why not doing it is the better move for some families: Sometimes, a mother may have to go back to work soon after the baby is born, to a job that does't give her the space or the time to pump. Perhaps she doesn't have the family or community support that makes breastfeeding sustainable. Maybe, with older children and a busy schedule, she feels that formula feeding is a better fit for her lifestyle.
Of course, mothers who request or who medically require it will still be able to access formula during their hospital stays post-January 2017. The new regulations aim to make breastfeeding the default, and to relegate bottle-feeding as the second-best option. While evidence does suggest that breastfeeding is better for health outcomes, some new moms may not appreciate the insinuation that their choice is inferior, or that turning to formula amid the emotionally draining and oftentimes painful process of learning to get a baby to latch somehow makes them second-rate parents.
The Huffington Post's Kate Auletta, who has two children, wrote that she was "racked with guilt," when she struggled to breastfeed each of them. She, like many moms, knew that breastmilk contains antibodies and nutrients that formula simply doesn't, but questioned the practice of elevating breastfeeding as the supreme act of motherly love. "It’s as though our government ― not just some random Facebook friend ― is preying on our mom guilt," she wrote. "And, of all things, do we really need that?"
It's commendable that the state of New York is taking steps to protect the health of the next generation. It needs to be abundantly clear to new moms, though, that the decision of how to nourish their children is theirs to make, and that no one — least of all the nurses and doctors dedicated to taking care of them — will shame, judge, or blame them for it.