Maryland hospitals stop giving away free samples of formula to new mothers

Maryland hospitals stop handing out formula samples.

Each of Maryland’s 32 birthing hospitals has agreed to stop handing out company-sponsored gift bags of formula to new mothers, an effort to support breast feeding, state health officials said Thursday.

Many hospitals stopped offering the gift bags years ago, but now Maryland becomes the fourth state to stop the practice altogether, including Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Delaware, officials from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said.

“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.

Other ways hospitals could support breast feeding, according to the state’s proposal, included maintaining a written breast feeding policy, informing pregnant women about the benefits and management of breast feeding, helping mothers initiate breast feeding within one hour of birth, showing mothers how to maintain lactation, giving newborns no pacifiers or other liquids other than breast milk unless medically indicated, fostering support groups and allowing mother and infants to remain together at all times. Maryland hospitals have also adopted these proposals.

The proposals were not meant to stigmatize mothers who couldn’t or didn’t want to breast feed, and formula would still be available, officials have said.

But state health officials pointed to studies showing 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. Supplying the promotional bags also implies the hospital endorses formula and the sponsoring company, they said.

The move puts Maryland hospitals in compliance with the policies of the World Health Organization on formula marketing and was supported by the Maryland Breastfeeding Coalition.

“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 coalition, in a statement.

Formula makers, however, say while they agree there are benefits to breast feeding, they believe mothers should know about formula, which can be desired or medically necessary.

“This is why it’s important to provide new parents with accurate information on infant feeding options to help ensure their baby’s optimal nutrition and overall well-being,” said Dr. Meg Meeker, pediatric spokesperson for the Infant Nutrition Council of America, in a statement. “Parents want to feel supported by hospitals and health care providers, regardless of whether they choose to breast feed, formula feed or use a combination of the two.”

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