Fewer hospitals giving away free formula
September 26th, 2011
12:01 AM ET

Fewer hospitals giving away free formula

An increasing number of hospitals are no longer giving new moms industry-sponsored baby formula samples when they leave the hospital, and that's a good thing,  health experts say.

The number of hospitals choosing to discontinue this practice doubled, on average, in the past four years according to a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

However, most hospitals still send new parents home with samples of formula, even though major health organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend mothers try to exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months of life.  Breast milk is considered to be the best source of nutrition for newborns and infants.

"It's a change, but it's just a small change," says Anne Merewood, Ph.D., director of the Breastfeeding Center at Boston Medical Center and senior study author.

Four years ago, researchers surveyed hospitals in all 50 states and found that all but 14% of hospitals were giving new mothers free baby formula samples. In 2010, they surveyed hospitals in 20 states (the 10 best and 10 worst states when it comes to distributing industry-sponsored formula samples).

The latest study found 28% of hospitals were now leaving formula out of the goodie bags they were sending home with new moms.

"But most hospitals are still giving them out," says Merewood.  She adds that most hospitals do not pay for the formula they feed their youngest patients or give the parents.  "Hospitals don't have a role in marketing formula but that's what they're doing,"Merewood believes.

In August, the CDC released a report that found hospitals need to do more to encourage moms to breastfeed. "We know 80% of mothers plan to breast feed," says Cria Perrine, Ph.D., one of the authors of last month's CDC report.  She says 75% of moms do start nursing their newborns, but half of them give their baby formula by the time their little one is one week old.

Experts including Merewood and Perrine believe that new parents may interpret the hospital's gift of free formula as an endorsement.  Merewood adds that when women are given free formula, that's usually the brand they will continue to use.

"It's very hard to change hospital practices," says Merewood.  "It's natural for people to want to give things away."  But she is encouraged by the trend she is seeing with her new survey.

Perrine says recent CDC data also finds fewer hospitals giving away free formula, (65.8% in 2009), "but it's not as fast as I would like to see."

In the past the American Hospital Association has told CNN that hospitals support breastfeeding, but "breastfeeding is a personal choice and hospitals will follow the wishes of the mother, be it to breastfeed or bottle feed."

Perrine says even if mothers intend to breastfeed and give their babies formula, they shouldn't start the formula until after they leave the hospital. During the first few days of a newborn's life, mom's breast milk provides baby with antibodies to ward off infections, hormones to regulate eating and it helps reduce diarrhea. Studies have also shown that breastfeeding helps lower risk for sudden infant death syndrome, as wells as diabetes and obesity later in life.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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