Flagstaff, AZ – Andy Thode and Heath Norton had their baby at FMC before the hospital stopped giving out free formula samples. So they came home with a tote bag full of formula powder and coupons. Andy decided before they had their daughter Zylie that she would breastfeed.
THODE: We actually didn't even really discuss it that much. We just focused on the nutritional benefits and developmental benefits of breast milk over formula. I have a hard time believing we could engineer something that good (laughs).
Officials at FMC agree. That's why they opted to stop handing out the tote bags from formula companies.
Brenda Phipps is a lactation consultant at FMC. She says many new parents are hungry for any advice so when a nurse or doctor gives them the complementary bag it can have an impact on them.
PHIPPS: It's an indirect endorsement I think, absolutely.
While the numbers of women in the US who breastfeed are up the number of women who breastfeed for at least six months, which experts recommend, remains low. Phipps says the free samples at hospitals don't help promote breastfeeding.
PHIPPS: Many studies that have been done on the distribution of bags by formula companies have shown that there's a decreased duration in breastfeeding even if there's no formula in the bag but just the formula company name is on the bag.
Studies by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality show breast feeding reduces a baby's risk of many illnesses including asthma and diabetes. Nursing is also good for mothers. It decreases their chances of breast and ovarian cancers. And the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast milk for all infants, with some rare exceptions.
About a quarter of new moms cannot or choose not to breastfeed. Anne Merewood believes that choice may be influenced by formula companies' marketing strategies. She is the director of the Breastfeeding Center at Boston Medical Center.
MEREWOOD: First of all they're trying to undermine breastfeeding but they're also marketing their particular brand. So if someone gives you Similac when you go home from the hospital and it says on the Similac don't change this for six months without talking to your doctor many women keep using Similac. They won't switch to a different brand. It's marketing and they're using the hospitals to market the formula.
Merewood is co-chair of the national Ban the Bags campaign, which has helped more than a hundred hospitals get rid of the formula tote bags.
Formula companies argue they're marketing strategy is merely an attempt to give new parents options. Gale Wood is a spokeswoman for Mead Johnson Nutritionals, which manufactures Enfamil formula - one of the country's top formula sellers. The company would not allow a recorded interview but Wood says the mothers they polled object to being told how to feed their babies. She says in addition to the samples the Enfamil bags provide information on how to breastfeed.
New mom Andy Thode says she did educate herself on the benefits of breastfeeding but still needed formula initially.
THODE: We had to supplement with formula when I wasn't producing enough milk but we're definitely trying to stick with the breastfeeding.
And Flagstaff Medical Center will continue to give formula to new mothers if they choose to formula feed or if they physically cannot breastfeed. But all new moms now receive a new kind of tote bag that contains health information and parenting resources instead of the free formula samples.
For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.