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Formulaic Response 

New Magee policy may be missing the point

A few weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that UPMC's Magee Hospital had decided it would no longer offer free infant formula to newborn parents. As one administrator explained, "We don't want to give the mixed message that we are promoting bottle feeding when really we want to encourage breast-feeding." 

Magee isn't alone in that: As the Post-Gazette's Anya Sostek noted, hospitals across the country have made similar choices; some states actually outlaw the freebies. But the story got noticed in our home, because when our son was born last year, we ended up using Magee's free formula. And not by choice. 

Those worried about "mixed messages" should relax: The advantages of breast-feeding are drummed into parents' heads constantly. About the only mixed message we ever heard was whether a mother who didn't breast-feed was to be pitied, or held in contempt. 

But we were convinced — by the health advantages we've heard about, by the idea of maternal bonding, by a paternal desire to save a few bucks. We didn't just see one lactation consultant during our time at Magee; we saw three. 

Looking back, that may have been the problem: By the time we left with newborn in tow — as sleep-deprived and terrified as any new parents — our heads were filled with wildly different guidance … even on such basic questions as whether breast-feeding should hurt in the beginning. Within 24 hours of coming home, we were back in the hospital, owing to our son's weight loss.  

By then, we were using formula on a doctor's orders. But all those well-intentioned reminders about the value of breast-feeding came back — this time as shame. Our kid wasn't 96 hours old, and we'd already blown it. So we did another round of lactation-counseling sessions — this time with the same person. And when we went home, we felt a bit more confident. 

Still, we didn't end up breast-feeding for as long as we'd hoped, or been urged to try for. 

The main reason for that was simple: Within a couple months, my sleep-deprived wife had a job to get back to. Even on the jet-setting salary of an alt-weekly editor, we couldn't make it with just one of us at work. And though my wife's employer was understanding, the nightly rigors of breast-feeding made it almost impossible for her to function in her job. (Pumping, by the way, does less than you'd think to solve such problems.)

If America really wanted to encourage breast-feeding, we'd look to countries where women are most likely to do it. As the Organization for Economic and Cooperation and Development found in a 2005 study, "The return to work is one of the reasons why mothers never start breast-feeding, or only do so for short durations. … The incidence of exclusive breast-feeding and its duration tends to be higher/longer in countries with long periods of maternity/parental leave" — like Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

There is a mixed message here, but it's not being sent by free formula samples. It's sent when mothers are discharged from the hospital the weekend they give birth, in the interests of "cost containment." It's sent when our Family Medical Leave Act gives working parents a few months of unpaid absence  if their employer is large enough to qualify.

Maybe there's not much that a hospital — even one belonging to Lord Romoff — can do about that. I'm sure they would if they could. We loved the midwives who delivered our son, and we're still grateful to the Magee doctor who, weeks before delivery, deftly turned him right-side-down to prevent a breech birth. 

And I understand the wariness about freebies: They are, after all, an attempt by giant corporations to insinuate themselves into your life — at the very moment you're least able to resist.

But giant enterprises are already intruding in our health care, setting reimbursement rates that hustle us out of the hospital, lobbying against more humane family-leave policies. Getting rid of freebies, ironically, would have deprived my wife and me of one of the few intrusions we could take advantage of. One of the few we could choose to ignore.

Magee means well, I know. But withdrawing formula feels like just another example of how America claims to value parenthood — by forcing parents to pay full price. 

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