Begging for Balance Before Banning the Bags

Last month, Maryland became the fourth state to eliminate the practice of handing out formula samples at hospitals. This was heralded as an important move in ensuring the health and welfare of the state’s newborns, as these sorts of initiatives always are. Reporters quoted breastfeeding advocates and nurses talking about how hospitals should be “marketing health”:

“This move allows Maryland hospitals to put their smallest patients’ health first,” said Dr. Dana Silver, pediatrician at Sinai Hospital and vice president of the (Maryland Breastfeeding Coalition), said in a statement.

From The Baltimore Sun

While the ban was officially a voluntary decision from the state’s 32 birthing hospitals and not a ruling from the state government, there were an awful lot of comments coming from state officials about the new policy:

“With changes like ‘banning the bags,’ we expect to see more mothers to try to exclusively feed their infants through breast feeding,” said Dr. Howard Haft, deputy secretary of public health services, in a statement. “This provides better overall health outcomes for Marylanders and brings us closer to achieving national goals in this area.”

The move was proposed three years ago by state health officials as part of a package of steps hospitals could voluntarily take to support breast feeding, which studies show may provide health benefits to the infants and mothers

The Baltimore Sun

Supporters of the “Ban the Bags” movement claim that mothers who get the formula samples are less likely to exclusively breast feed and stop breast feeding before mothers who don’t get the formula.. They are absolutely correct. There are many studies showing this result, and I am in absolute agreement with them that the bags should NEVER be indiscriminately handed out upon hospital discharge.

Further, I agree that there’s no need for any marketing to be allowed in the maternity ward. As long as we all agree that this really means NO MARKETING. That includes free samples of Medela breast pads. I would also argue that posters ‘advertising’ the benefits of breastfeeding – often with slogans that are inherently shame and anxiety-producing – have no place in the maternity ward.

And lastly, there’s a valid argument that allowing formula companies to provide samples drives up the cost of commercial formula. But this is a bit of a straw man, because the marketing budgets of large pharmaceutical corporations are built in well-thought-out, specific ways; I suspect that Enfamil will find a way to use whatever money was going into the hospital discharge packs and spend it elsewhere. The cost of brand-name formula isn’t going down anytime soon, which is why it’s a wonderful thing that we have high-quality generic options on the market.

All of these arguments in favor of the Ban the Bags movement are valid. But there are other, equally valid arguments opposing it, that are being uniformly ignored by those in power:

What if mothers actually want the samples?

What if these samples allow parents to feed their babies the safer but far more expensive ready-to-feed nursettes, which reduce the risk of bacterial infections and exhausted, new-parent errors in preparing powdered formula?

What if the formula-sponsored discharge bags are the only real source of formula “education” parents are receiving?

Granted, these three questions all have other solutions than “give everyone formula samples”. For example,

– Formula samples could be on hand but only given upon parental request.

-These samples could be generic RTF newborn nursettes, pre-measured into small amounts that would prevent overfeeding (since everyone is so concerned about formula-using parents force-feeding their babies until their thimble-sized tummies expand, cursing them to a lifetime of morbid obesity)

-Samples could be outlawed, but all parents could instead receive a pre-discharge tutorial on safe formula feeding, what to look for in terms of insufficient breastfeeding and/or jaundice, and also a pamphlet or book with unbiased, easy to understand instructions for all safe feeding methods (breastfeeding, pumping, donor milk, formula feeding), as well as a local resource list for breastfeeding, formula feeding and postpartum mental health support.

Advocates for Ban the Bags can claim that these policies are put in place to protect babies, rather than to shame mothers or take away their options, but they need to understand that this is indeed the perception. I conducted a simple survey, composed primarily of the Fearless Formula Feeder audience, to explore what formula-using mothers thought of these initiatives. Of course, this is a biased group – most started out breastfeeding and switched to formula within the first 3 months, and some formula fed from the beginning (although I did open the survey up to anyone, and we did have 17% who exclusively breastfed, and 15% who breastfed and switched to formula between 3-12 months). But I’d posit that their bias is what makes their opinions so powerful. These are the moms who didn’t end up exclusively breastfeeding. If they felt that formula samples were at fault for this result, we would see that on the survey. Instead, this is what the survey found:


Hurt your breastfeeding efforts= 2.26%

Help you in some way = 22.56%

Neither= 32.83%

Some of the open-ended responses included:

“I was offered a bag but refused it.”

“It was an absolute blessing- i needed to supplement while my breast milk came in, and it meant that i didn’t have to run to the store while recovering from 2 c-sections.”

“It did not influence my decision to switch to formula after 4 weeks, but it was so helpful to have the formula sample to try and see if it helped before buying expensive formula at the store.”

“Gave it away or threw it out.”

“It helped tremendously. I could only produce enough breastmilk for one baby, but I had two. Formula is expensive (as are babies, and we had two!), so the formula that the hospital sent us home with was invaluable. We wouldn’t have bought the nursettes on our own (we’re too cheap), so the ones that the hospital gave us made the first few weeks of parenthood a little bit easier. We weren’t having to mix formula after not sleeping.”

“I had a stack of breast feeding information given to me, a breast feeding class to attend, and a formula bag with some info and a small can of formula. The bag was just a nice gesture to formula being a choice for me and my babies.”

“I wasn’t as stressed about breast feeding bc I knew I had some formula to use if needed.”

There were some responses suggesting that the formula samples were detrimental to breastfeeding success, supporting my assertion that these should be clearly called Formula Bags, and only given upon request:

“It made me feel like the only option was failure… Here are samples and coupons so you can hand your life over to the formula companies.”

“… I forgot about it and when I found it the formula was expired. It was wasteful.”

“I felt like thenurses had no confidence in my ability to breastfeed. When I was given the bag I felt like I was destined to fail and everyone knew it except for me. My sister helped me to overcome the initial obstacles and I was successful meeting my breastfeeding goals, but without her I’m not sure I would have continued past two weeks.”

For those respondents opposing Ban the Bags, the most common impression was that it shamed formula feeding parents:

Chart_Q5_15110467% of respondents felt that the initiative “shames parents who choose formula”; 60% didn’t like banning the bags because the samples came in handy; 31% said that the bags were “the only source of formula education I received.”

Open-ended responses included:

“Because it’s paternalistic and undermines a parent’s right to choose how to feed her baby”

“I don’t think it should be banned altogether, samples should be available to women who choose to formula feed or combo feed, but I don’t think formula companies should be targetting women who intend to breastfeed exclusively any more than Lansinoh or Medela should target women who intend to formula feed.”

“Because it should not be the government’s business to create a culture of shame around a product that many new parents need. I think it would be fair to educate new parents that supplementing may interfere with their milk supply if they express a desire to breastfeed exclusively. Beyond that, they should leave it up to the parents if they wish to receive them or not. If a company wishes to provide a sample, their client base should be allowed to receive it…the samples are helpful as parents make decisions around what is best to feed their child.”

“Because it implies a qualitative judgement on formula use. Parents have a right to choose their feeding method and the hospital does not have a right to attempt to manipulate that choice. With both of my children, I was offered only pampers brand diapers in the hospital. Why does pampers get the opportunity to push their brand name but not a formula company?”

“Because it is completely, 100% disingenuous and insulting to insinuate that a promotional bag has more power over me than my own well-reasoned decision-making processes.”

“It implies parents aren’t capable of making a choice. That we women are so weak willed that if we see a formula sample we’ll throw our breastfeeding goals away for a few samples. It laughs in the face of informed consent. If one is going to make a choice human milk or formula then they should be given ALL of the information. The only information parents are given at appointments and from the hospital is about breastfeeding. Yet if a formula company gives formula information it’s decided it’s only for marketing. Sure formula makes formula companies money but if the hospital offered unbias formula information about it instead of 10 risk of formula feeding lists we wouldn’t be seeking it from the formula companies.”

“Much like banning condoms & birth control doesn’t prevent sex, banning formula samples & literature doesn’t prevent parents from using formula. It’s dangerous – parents need ALL the info about infant feeding. “Ban the Bags” initiatives are tantamount to sticking your fingers in your ears, closing your eyes, and saying “na na na I can’t hear you it’s not happening.” Childish and completely ineffective.”

The most attractive solutions for most respondents were to hand out the sample bags only upon request (73%), or to give an unbiased book/pamphlet talking about all infant feeding options (62%)  as an alternative:

Chart_Q7_151104(Interestingly, 19% chose “parents could receive sample bags of breastfeeding-related products”. I find this interesting, as it does negate the more palatable argument (at least in terms of feminism and bodily autonomy) that the reason to ban the bags is to take corporate interests/marketing out of healthcare settings. Apparently, predatory marketing on postpartum women is perfectly okay, provided it comes from Lansinoh rather than Similac.)

Many respondents mentioned feeling like the gift bags “normalized” formula, saying that it was the only time formula was mentioned or seen during their hospital stay. For those choosing to formula feed or combo-feed from the start, this can be disheartening. If formula were discussed as an option, without the scare tactics or patronizing language used in most healthcare settings, perhaps getting rid of the bags would meet with less outrage. In a space left for respondent comments, a sense of feeling marginalized and that there was only one “right” choice for infant feeding was clear:

“I had zero information about the right way to formula feed. I had no idea how good formula was good for, how to properly store it, the right amount to give, etc– I only learned from formula containers. Information about this in a pamphlet would have been very helpful.” 

“The lack of free formula is not my concern. I am concerned that regulating this shames formula feeders (i.e., the message is that formula is so awful it should not be given out by a hospital). I am also concerned about the total lack of education in hospitals about when and how to supplement or EFF.”

” These are often the first times mom and dad are presented with formula, and the only “education” and information they may receive about it. Yet breastfeeding info and help is available in quite a widespread manner. Again to take this away would do a great deal of harm for parents who may exclusively formula feed, as they could certainly use whatever educational info they can get about formula feeding.”

“Parents should be given accurate, and unbiased info about ALL feeding options. Denying info about a healthy, and nutritional feeding choice merely due to zealotry does nothing to help women, or children.”

“Formula information and samples should always be available on request – no questions asked. Also safe and clear information for both feeding methods needs to be made to all parents. Breastfeeding, pumping, bottle feeding, sterilising equipment, post partum depression, maternal health, and safe practice for storing formula and breastmilk.”

Although there’s been a recent backlash against breastfeeding pressure, this is not an issue of questioning breastfeeding’s benefits. Of course hospitals should be protecting and supporting breastfeeding, provided it is something a woman is not opposed to doing, but we also have to be realistic: formula is here to stay. It is going to be used, and the way we’re going about things now, it is going to be used incorrectly, with shame and guilt and fear. Of course direct marketing to patients has no place in the healthcare setting, but in a climate where formula is being kept under lock and key and treated like tobacco or alcohol, we need to be aware that the formula companies are often the only ones discussing their product with new parents. If we truly care about “putting the health of our smallest patients first”, then do exactly that, because leaving their parents without proper info on formula use is putting their heath in danger. Making their mothers feel marginalized simply because their breasts don’t work how they are supposed to, or because they have personal, valid reasons for not wanting to feed a child from a culturally, emotionally-loaded part of the female anatomy, puts the mothers’ health in danger, which can obviously affect infant health as well.

These are not simple issues, so let’s not oversimplify them by insisting that taking away a bag – a bag that can be taken or left, like the jello on the hospital tray – is going to make a huge impact on breastfeeding rates, while ignoring the impact it may have on the experiences of formula-using parents.

Balance before bans. That’s all we ask.






Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.

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