When Breastfeeding Advocacy Goes Too Far: Mayor Bloomberg and Latch On NYC

Latch On NYC poster from here.

The intricacies of the breast vs. bottle debate were barely even on my radar until Lillian was born and, despite originally planning on breastfeeding, we ended up using formula due to a severe and unexpected lack of milk production on my part. (You can read that whole story here.) Since then, I’ve found myself reading more and more about the issue, and feeling more and more strongly about it.

I bring this up because over the past few days, there’s been a story in the news that really hit a nerve for me. In New York City, mayor Michael Bloomberg has been pushing this “Latch On NYC” initiative, one of the most restrictive pro-breastfeeding (and anti-formula) programs in the nation. An article in the New York Post explains:

Under Latch On NYC, new mothers who want formula won’t be denied it, but hospitals will keep infant formula in out-of-the-way secure storerooms or in locked boxes like those used to dispense and track medications.

With each bottle a mother requests and receives, she’ll also get a talking-to. Staffers will explain why she should offer the breast instead.

“It’s the patient’s choice,” said Allison Walsh, of Beth Israel Medical Center. “But it’s our job to educate them on the best option.”

Lisa Paladino, of Staten Island University Hospital, said: “The key to getting more moms to breast-feed is making the formula less accessible. This way, the RN has to sign out the formula like any other medication. The nurse’s aide can’t just go grab another bottle.”

I’ll just come right out and say that I don’t have an ounce of respect or patience for this kind of overblown breastfeeding evangelism. Don’t get me wrong: if someone wants to breastfeed and can, wonderful. If someone wants to breastfeed and is struggling, by all means help them out. But lecturing every new mom who asks for formula? Trying to manipulate every woman into breastfeeding no matter what her situation or preference like it’s some kind of one-size-fits-all thing? It’s nothing short of insulting.

The reality is that all the education, guilt-tripping, and manipulation in the world will do nothing to force the breasts of women like me to produce enough milk to exclusively breastfeed for those recommended first six months. It will do nothing to ease the tremendous burdens that breastfeeding places on women in a multitude of individual life circumstances. But why bother to face any of the real issues when you can demonize formula like it’s a dangerous drug and belittle women for making the “wrong” feeding choice?

I think the worst part about this whole crusade for breastfeeding as a “public health issue” in the United States is how wildly out of proportion the rhetoric is with the actual proven benefits. When it comes to breast vs. formula, we’re not talking about something with measurable health consequences at the individual level — we’re talking about differences so minuscule that you can’t even detect them without looking at statistical trends across large populations. (And even then, the better you take into account confounding factors like maternal income and education, the tinier they tend to get.) That we’ve gotten to a point where anyone thinks it’s justified or defensible to lecture and pressure all new moms into breastfeeding at all costs, as though failure to do so will surely damage their babies, is a sign of just how badly we’ve lost all sense of perspective on this issue.

At least, that’s my take. What do you think about this initiative in New York City? Or about the state of breastfeeding advocacy in general? I’d love to hear any thoughts in the comments, and feel free to share this post as you see fit.

Update: Since writing this post, it seems that there has been a lot of backtracking and watering down of the Latch On NYC initiative, which I can only say is a good thing. But for anyone wondering if the outrage over the initiative was overblown or misplaced from the start, check out this excellent write-up which compares and contrasts the document that made everyone so angry with the one that quietly replaced it after the firestorm started.

18 Comments

  1. I’ve been hearing about this as well, and I have to tell you that it bothers me very much. The fact of the matter is that many mothers simply choose not to breastfeed. Some, like you, simply cannot. Why should anyone be allowed to condemn them for that? Formula will not hurt the baby. Take one look at Lillian, and you can see that it does not. Once again, a group of people is deciding what is best for everyone and then trying to force everyone to do it their way. I’m sorry but is this not still a free country where we all have the right to choose? Let the parents decide what is right for their child. As long as they aren’t doing something to harm the child, what business is it of anyone else? I get so tired of certain groups who try to push their agendas onto everyone else. People should be allowed to simply live their lives the way they see fit.

    You know, I chose not to breastfeed my children, and all of them are perfectly healthy. In fact, they are very rarely ill and have always been that way. I was formula fed, too, and am very rarely ill. Breastfeeding is a wonderful experience, I’m sure, but if someone can’t or doesn’t want to, I don’t think they should be vilfied for it.

    It’s interesting that you should bring this subject up because I just read a blog post in the New York Times concerning this very thing. I thought of you when I read it. Here is a link to it:

    http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/the-ideal-and-the-real-of-breast-feeding/

    I believe it ties in very well to your post. We need to stop trying to scare people into doing what we want with misleading information. Instead, we should empower them with factual information on both sides of the issues so that they can make the choices that they feel are best for them. After all, isn’t that why we were given free will?

    Love you all!

    • You’re completely right when you say that as long as the child isn’t being harmed, it’s no one else’s business. I think part of the problem is that thanks to the blown-out-of-proportion breastfeeding rhetoric, a lot of people have gotten the idea that formula is actually harmful — in the same way that something like smoking is harmful — when the reality is that there’s nothing in the body of scientific evidence to justify that belief.

      Thanks for the link, and I think that article does a really good job of articulating a lot of issues that come into play. It’s always kind of disheartening to read the comments on those kinds of articles, though — like most of the online discussion of the breast vs. bottle debate, opinion seems to be overwhelmingly pro-breastfeeding and anti-formula, and there’s so much preaching and judgment that it’s crazy.

  2. Wow, this is sort of bizarre to me, as things were almost the opposite when my kids were born. My doctor gave me a pamphlet about 2 months before Joe was born, with pros and cons of both breast and formula. It basically agreed with the article Julia posted above, with additional information about how the formula companies had sort of pulled a number on 3rd world countries in the 60’s and 70’s. Powdered formula had fallen out of favor in the US (with consumers,not docs; too messy and clumpy) and so they gave away free samples (2-4 weeks’ worth)at hospitals, but the women had to buy it once they were home. And they HAD to buy it after using it, because in that amount of time, their natural milk dried up. So I guess some of this “breast-nazi” behavior stems from the general “corporations have been lying” angst that’s current. When I was breast-feeding, I got the “omg, you’re nasty” treatment when some people realized what my baby was doing under that blanket – I relate this because sadly, people are going to find SOMEthing to be judgemental about, every generation, unrelated to facts of any sort. I don’t see a problem with hospitals having to lock away formula and account for who gets how much, seems like a budget thing – but the lecture “with every bottle”? C’mon, that should have been addressed prenatally, with MAYBE a “reminder” with the first bottle. More than that, and you’re just haranguing the woman. And that’s for the women who simply CHOOSE not to nurse – if you can’t, you can’t, and no one should make you feel guilty about it.

    • It really is interesting how these things swing between the different extremes from one generation to another, and I definitely agree that it’s unacceptable to harrass women for nursing in public or to force formula on people who don’t want to use it. I’m even okay with some degree of education as long as it’s clear and realistic about the actual magnitude of the benefits, and as long as it allows for the message that it’s okay if breastfeeding doesn’t work out. There’s a fine line between helping people make an informed choice and manipulating them into doing what you want, and it seems like too much of modern breastfeeding advocacy leans toward the latter.

  3. My sister is one of the breast feeding evangelists so I’ve heard all the reasons why it is better. Not having kids, I’ve never really paid attention because hey, not my issue. But this is just ridiculous. How much money went into these campaigns? I’d love to see more effort going into literacy programs or anti-obesity programs.

    • Thanks for the comment, and I completely agree — When you really consider some of the more serious social, economic, and health-related problems in the United States, the obsession with raising breastfeeding rates just seems kind of… out of touch.

  4. When I heard about this I thought of you actually…I felt at the time (and I still do) that such a ploy is incredibly short sided and narrow minded, not to mention offensive. No persons body is built the same, and given that post birth can include symptoms of depression, this type of condemning methodology could be outright dangerous to a woman who may have wanted to breast feed but for whatever reason could not.

    But really in terms of the offensive aspect…its just another piece in how US society seems to be attempting to remove choice from women in how we live our lives and what we choose to do with our bodies. As with all things involving womens bodies, I support the opportunity to choose, and be treated like an adult. I dontthink that that is too much to ask.

    By the way, I hope you got Maxs email the other week. Our thoughts have been with you guys.

    • You’re completely right about women’s bodies and the right to choose, and what really vexes me about this issue is that not only are most of these breastfeeding supremacists women, many are openly pro-choice and self-identified feminists. These are the same types of people who bristle at ideas like mandatory ultrasounds before abortions, but apparently have no problem with government getting all up in your business when it comes to breastfeeding.

  5. PS – As a side note to what Julia and Leanne were mentioning…one of the worst of those offenders were owned by Nestle, who pulled that tactic in impoverished countries where the women could not afford to pay for it…it was a scandal…twice…and that is why I have only eaten Nestle products maybe 5 times in my life.

    • All good points, and it’s definitely worth noting that formula feeding in impoverished nations is a whole different ball game from formula feeding in the United States. When you can’t prepare it safely due to contaminated water, or can’t afford enough to keep a baby’s tummy full without over-diluting it, formula really can be a serious health issue, and I think most people would agree that it’s unethical for companies to actively market it in such environments.

  6. Wow. Just wow. Although my daughter is exclusively breastfed (Thank God we haven’t had issues) the fact is, is that some women can’t or choose not to for a million reasons that are NO ONES business especially government. Who’s right is it to make a mother feel like formula is a bad thing? As if pregnancy/childbirth/dealing with a newborn isn’t emotionally draining enough now you have to deal with this interference?

    • Thanks for the comment Catherine! I’m glad breastfeeding worked out for you, and I really love your attitude about it all. I completely agree that government has no business heaping on additional unneeded stress, especially since childbirth and new parenthood can be enough of an emotional roller coaster as it is.

  7. Have you considered writing and op ed for the chicago tribune/nytimes on the subject? I think you would be a powerful advocate on this matter.

    • Honestly it hadn’t occurred to me, especially since this is really my first foray into the political / controversial topics on this blog — but perhaps as I continue writing that might be something to consider down the road. Thanks for the suggestion in any case. :)

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