Efforts to educate mothers about the health benefits of breastfeeding are welcome – but ultimately the decision is personal, and women should not be pressured into doing so by overly zealous public-health officials.
The “Latch On” campaign launched by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg goes too far and stigmatizes baby formula by calling on state health commissioners to restrict access to the product, track its distribution and prohibit distribution of promotional materials. In Canada, some hospitals are also stopping the distribution of free formula for new mothers.
Women should not feel forced to breastfeed, or judged by their decision not to. It may not be practical or possible for mothers to breastfeed, due to a variety of factors beyond their control. There should not be an assumption that those who opt for formula do so because they are uneducated about breastfeeding, or swayed by tins of free Nestle’s Good Start in a hospital maternity ward.
Breastfeeding exclusively for the baby’s first six months does confer benefits, and has been linked to reduced susceptibility to common childhood illnesses such as inner-ear infections and gastroenteritis, and reduced risk of certain non-communicable diseases. There are also benefits to women, including a decreased risk of cancer.
While the World Health Organization recommends such a practice, globally less than 40 per cent of infants under six months are breastfed. In the U.S., 77 per cent of mothers begin breastfeeding, but only 16 per cent continue to do so exclusively after six months. In Canada, about 90 per cent of women start by breastfeeding; at six months, about 14 are exclusively breastfeeding.
Rates are higher in countries such as Denmark, which have legally protected paid maternity leaves. For women who have to return to work just weeks after giving birth, and do not have time to use a breast pump at the office, formula can be a life-saving supplement. It is also a way for the father or partner to share the burden of feeding a newborn, especially when both parents are employed outside the home.
The most important thing for a newborn is that he or she is well-fed, and that the mother is free to make the choice that best works for her.