Do Breastfeeding-Friendly Hospital Bags Really Have Moms' Best Interests in Mind?

When hospitals offer formula freebies to new moms, are they undermining breastfeeding? According to many lactation advocates, the answer is yes. Some people believe that it's irresponsible for hospitals to hand out formula samples, since it endorses "artificial feeding."

Enter Healthy Baby Bags, the breastfeeding-friendly hospital bag. Distributed by Cottonwood Kids, the Healthy Baby Bag is being promoted as being the first hospital gift bag designed to help "every mother to leave the hospital with all the knowledge and support she needs to feed her child naturally."

As someone who couldn't breastfeed and thus would have loved some free formula—excuse me, artificial unnatural nutrition—from my hospital, I'm not sure I agree with the idea that offering a new mom a Similac coupon is such a controversial idea.
So I decided to ask the Healthy Baby Bag folks some questions about their pro-breastfeeding program, to see if I could gain a new perspective from the experts.


I was put in touch with Gina Ciagne, Certified Lactation Counselor and Senior Director of Breastfeeding Relations at Lansinoh Laboratories, as well as Erik Maurer, President and Founder of Cottonwood Kids. Here's what we talked about:

Me: Do you personally believe that hospital formula freebies have a negative effect on a new mother's breastfeeding plans?

Gina Ciagne: I do. Breastfeeding can be especially challenging the first few days postpartum, so the availability of a hospital-provided substitute can weaken the resolve of some mothers who had a breastfeeding plan in place. In illustration of my point, A Breastfeeding in Toronto report released by Toronto Public Health (TPH) shows Canadian women who don't get those freebie formula samples after giving birth are 3.5 times more likely to be exclusively breastfeeding after two weeks. That's 350 percent more likely. The author cites a similar study done in the U.S. in 2005 where that figure was a staggering 4.4 times more likely to be exclusively breastfeeding if mom was not given formula.

Me: Do you think hospitals should ban all formula giveaways, thus making free formula unavailable to mothers who cannot breastfeed?

Gina Ciagne: I don’t suggest a ban on all formula giveaways, but I do believe that the dissemination of formula in hospitals should be an exception to the rule rather than the standard protocol. Breastfeeding support and promotion should be an instrumental part of every hospital’s protocol, and formula should only be offered if and when a mother has been given proper help with breastfeeding—especially in the early days post-birth.

Me: What is the cost to hospitals for each Healthy Baby Bag?

Erik Maurer: We have created a program that allows hospitals to select a breastfeeding support product that fits within their budgets. The Healthy Baby Bag is $1.99.

Me: Do the brands in the Healthy Baby Bags pay for being included in the bags?

Erik Maurer: The answer is yes. A program like this would not work without support from our program participants. We select the breastfeeding products to be included in the program based on feedback provided to us by Hospital based Lactation Consultants around the country. These companies contribute to the program to help cover the cost of packing and distributing, similar to other sampling programs.

The Healthy Baby Bag contains breastfeeding support samples, coupons, and resources from brands including Lansinoh, Leading Lady, March of Dimes, Milkies, Pumpin Pal, My Brest Friend, Aquaphor, Ergo Baby, and Mother's Milk Tea. According to Cottonwood Kids, "All items inside are compliant with the WHO Code, and are therefore completely focused on the importance of breastfeeding with no nipples or bottles included."

My opinion on this is pretty mixed. The information about the formula sample studies is new to me, and I can absolutely understand the concern over the increase in formula use when samples are offered. On the other hand, I'm not thrilled about encouraging a hospital environment that is so militantly pro-breastfeeding that they potentially create an uncomfortable situation for a new mother who may have reasons to choose formula feeding. I'm also not a fan of terms like "artificial feeding," which makes it sound like I fed my babies chemical pellets via some sort of robotic arm.

Also, let's be honest—no one's doing this out of the pure kindness of their heart. Lansinoh is a wholly owned subsidiary of Pigeon Corporation, which made 58.26 billion yen last year. (Pigeon sells bottles, by the way, which violates that rather draconian International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes developed by the WHO.) Cottonwood Kids is making money from the Healthy Baby Bags. The companies included in the bags are getting prime advertising exposure. Everybody wins!

Except, maybe, for the mom who wanted some formula.

In my ideal world, a new mom would have access to whatever resources she wanted. For moms who can't breastfeed, bring on the formula freebies. For moms who plan to exclusively breastfeed, bring on the boob bags. For moms who are open to whatever ends up being best for their family, how about one of each?

Or maybe better yet, hold off on marketing anything at all to new moms while they're still under medical care. Because however you describe it, a hospital gift bag is exactly that: marketing.

What do you think about hospital gift bags? Should all new moms be getting breastfeeding bags instead of formula freebies? (And did I give birth at the only hospital where the only "free" thing we brought home was a baby?)

Image via Cottonwood Kids

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