Should baby formula be locked up in hospitals?


That’s the question, I’m asking.

Does baby formula need to be under lock and key in hospitals in order to encourage new mothers to breastfeed their babies rather than relying on baby formula?

I don’t know what you think but I can tell you what New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg thinks. He thinks ‘yes’. Which is why next month the city is implementing a program that aggressively promotes breastfeeding to new mothers in the city’s hospitals by locking up the baby formula …

Lawyer and writer Jacoba Urist wrote about it for The Wall Street Journal blogs: 

Formula – locked for whose protection?

Starting September 3rd, under the “Latch on NYC” initiative , the City will monitor the number of formula bottles hospitals use, by keeping them in the same kind of lock-boxes they use to store medications.

So far, 27 of the New York’s 40 hospitals have signed on, agreeing to toss out formula-branded items like lanyards and mugs and to document a medical reason for every bottle a newborn receives— treating formula like a prescription drug.

With each formula bottle a mother requests, she’ll get a lactation lecture about why she should use breast milk instead.

NYU Medical’s spokesperson told The New York Post that they’ve already adopted the program. The Post reports that NYU’s breastfeeding rate has jumped from 39 to 68 percent of new mothers since they implemented it.

I’m all for women breastfeeding if they want to (as I did). The health benefits of breast milk are persuasive. We should support mothers who choose to breastfeed with things like greater social acceptability and public lactation rooms.

But Bloomberg’s program forces women to defend a valid request for baby formula. It preys on women in the days (sometimes hours) after they deliver a baby.

If I, a fairly confident, opinionated lawyer, had trouble standing up to the breast-feeding brigade at the hospital, before the Bloomberg lockdown, I can only imagine what New York moms face today. Or come September.

To say that Urist’s words ring true for me in an understatement.  Earlier this year I gave birth to my son Fin in a Baby Friendly Health Initiatives accredited hospital — a global initiative that is strikingly similar to the one Urist describes above.

Bec with Fin

Not that I should really even need to tell you this  but Fin was premature.  My milk took a loooong time to come in. And my son was losing weight.  So my pediatrician instructed that he go on formula for ‘top up’ feeds. An issue that clearly didn’t sit well with some of the midwives.

Several of them – not all but more than one – made me feel like a negligent mother for giving my baby formula.

I’m a forty-year-old woman who is hardly a wall flower. And yet three days after giving birth, I just stood there and allowed myself to be berated by a midwife at the ward’s front desk – in front of several people – for ‘not trying hard enough’ to breastfeed.  She publicly reprimanded me for not expressing milk every two hours throughout the night.  I had tried but frankly  I was EXHAUSTED. Actually exhausted doesn’t even convey how I felt. I’d been sleeping an average of two hours per night in the lead up to Fin’s birth. I was mentally fried by the time I reached hospital.   Regardless, this midwife castigated me. I went back to my room and sobbed.


Worse was the loudly unspoken message that what I was doing — giving my son some formula – was ‘disappointing’. Even irresponsible.   It, at times, felt like blatant bullying at a period in my life when I was at my most fragile.

It was the facial expressions certain midwives made when I asked for the formula. It was the ever conflicting advice on how best to feed the formula to him. (Every midwife had a different opinion: Syringe!  Teat!  Dropper! I found myself getting anxious whenever there was a change in shift).  It was the way in which I was gravely presented with forms to sign when I requested the formula for Fin which reinforced the notion that what I was doing was detrimental to his well-being. It was being made aware that there needed to be two staff to ‘witness’ the formula being ‘signed out’ of the cupboard.  All strategies, if we’re going to be completely honest, designed to make mothers who choose formula to feel awkward. Uncomfortable. Guilty. These initiatives seem hell-bent on communicating to formula-feeding mothers that their choice is the wrong one. And believe me, I got that message loud and clear.


That’s why, I truly believe the pendulum has swung too far.  I’m all for breastfeeding. I so, so am. I breastfed my daughter Ava for 12 months and only weaned her because I was rather desperate (read: obsessed) with getting pregnant again.  I loved breastfeeding. I loved how good it was for Ava. I loved the convenience. I loved the intimacy of it.  I loved the fact there was no washing up to do afterwards (always a bonus). I planned to do the exact same thing with Fin. But as we all know… life doesn’t always go to plan.

That’s why I genuinely fear these initiatives are not about hospitals having a pro-breastfeeding stance but an aggressive anti-formula feeding one. And there’s a big difference.  And I’m not convinced it’s playing fair.

By all means educate mothers about the myriad benefits of breastfeeding. Give them access to lactation consultants round the clock.  Provide a supportive, nurturing environment for breastfeeding.  Offer tips and advice about how to tackle obstacles along the way like mastitis. Low supply.  Expressing.  Yes, yes to all that.  But  once a mother knows all the facts and she still chooses not to breastfeed (or to combine breast and formula feeding)  for whatever reason … her choice needs to be respected. Not tolerated through gritted teeth and rolled eyes.

I mean, come on. Formula being LOCKED UP? In case – what? –  a breastfeeding mother goes rogue one night and attempts to formula feed her baby without permission.


Remind me again why she needs permission?  Remind me again why it’s any of the hospital’s business?

I know that breastmilk is far, far superior but it’s baby formula, people. Not crystal meth.

I’m not writing this post to stir up trouble. To get hits. To generate argy-bargy. I’m just someone who has experienced the negative aspect of these ‘breastfeeding initiatives’ firsthand. And I know for sure I’m not alone.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that ‘Latch on NYC’ or the BFHI initiatives are a bad idea. Not at all.  I fully support programs designed to actively encourage breastfeeding. I’m just saying, really loudly: Could we just lose the attitude that seems to go along with it? And is it really necessary to behave as though feeding a baby formula is akin to child abuse?  For every mother who is won over to breastfeeding, I suspect there’s another who leaves hospital feeling like she’s already failed for not doing so.

Ultimately, the best mother is a happy mother.  However her baby is fed.  I hope you’re listening, New York.

Mia feeding Fin

Publisher’s note from Mia Freedman: To preemptively answer some of the comments I know will arise from Bec’s post, I wanted to provide some background. The impetus for this story came from a tweet by 7:30 journalist Leigh Sales who linked to the story about the New York agreement and expressed her surprise that such a thing was happening.

Having been with Bec in hospital when she experienced the incidents she wrote about, I witnessed it first hand and asked if she’d like to write about her view.

It’s worth noting that Leigh Sales, Bec and myself all breastfed our babies. I tell you this to deflect any accusations of myself or Mamamia being anti-breastfeeding. We are patently not and have published pro-breastfeeding articles on the site many many times including this wonderful one from Tara Moss, UNICEF Patron for Breastfeeding for the Baby Friendly Health Initiative (BFHI).

I have personally written many positive articles about breastfeeding (that could even be described as ‘stridently positive’) including this one, and this one. And in the hospital that day when Bec was in tears, I was giving her gentle, loving advice on how to increase her milk supply because I knew how committed she was to breastfeeding.

So, health professionals and breastfeeding advocates by all means encourage women to breastfeed if it’s the best thing for them and their baby and they want to do it. But treating them like criminals and treating formula like some illegal drug is both uneccessary and insulting. It’s awful for vulnerable new mothers and it gives a bad name to the vast majority of midwives who aren’t so hardline.

In honour of World Breastfeeding Week which ended yesterday, our sister site iVillage published a gallery of celebrities and iVillage readers breastfeeding their babies.We strongly suggest you click through the images here. They will warm your heart.

How can we encourage women to breastfeed, without demonising those who don’t want to or are unable to?