10/10/2011 11:16 am ET | Updated Dec 10, 2011

Will the Decline of Formula Freebies Lead to Better Breastfeeding Practices in Hospitals?

The CDC's 2011 Breastfeeding Report Card indicated that breastfeeding rates are slowly rising in the U.S. But the country still has a way to go before it reaches the breastfeeding goals set by Healthy People 2020. Many say that improved support from birth facilities is integral to increasing breastfeeding rates. So why is it that so many new moms leave the maternity ward toting a bag packed with free formula samples? Doesn't this undermine plans they might have had to breastfeed? Studies show it does.

A report released by Toronto Public Health in Canada shows that Canadian women who don't get those freebie formula samples after giving birth are 3.5 times more likely to be exclusively breastfeeding after two weeks. That's 350 percent more likely. The author cites a similar study done in the U.S. in 2005 where that figure was a staggering 4.4 times more likely to be exclusively breastfeeding if mom was not given formula. Clearly, these sampling programs are a serious barrier to breastfeeding.

Good news has recently come in the form of a new study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which found that the number of U.S. hospitals distributing free formula samples is decreasing. Researchers from the Breastfeeding Center at the Boston Medical Center found that the number of hospitals that refuse to give out formula jumped from 14 percent in 2007 to 28 percent in 2010.

The breastfeeding versus formula war has been raging for decades, and there will always be moms who choose, for whatever reason, not to breastfeed. I'm a Certified Lactation Counselor, breastfeeding advocate, educator, promoter, and former breastfeeding mom of two. In both my and many scientists and health care providers' opinions, the evidence speaks for itself regarding the benefits of (and the risks of not) breastfeeding for both mom and baby. Research shows that it provides health benefits for moms and babies that simply can't be matched by an artificial substitute.

Formula is crucial when a mother is, for whatever reason, unable to breastfeed her child. But in the words of fellow breastfeeding advocate and Lactation Consultant Amy Spangler, "While breastfeeding may not seem the right choice for every parent, it is the best choice for every baby."

The dissemination of free formula in hospitals should be an exception to the rule rather than standard protocol. Breastfeeding support and promotion should be an instrumental part of every hospital's protocol and formula should be offered if and when a mother has been given the opportunity to be helped with breastfeeding, especially in the early days post-birth.

In response to requests received over the years by breastfeeding educators and hospitals that wanted to more proactively promote breastfeeding to their patients, Lansinoh began working with Cottonwood Kids in 2009 to support an alternative to hospitals' formula freebies called the Healthy Baby Bag. This breastfeeding-friendly gift bag was developed by Cottonwood's founder, Erik Maurer, who saw that there were few alternatives to formula companies' free hospital samples. Health care providers were asking for more educational breastfeeding materials and samples to hand out. Packaged inside each Healthy Baby Bag are samples, coupons, and helpful information about breastfeeding from some of the world's leading consumer product manufacturers.

When the Healthy Baby Bag first came on the scene, the reaction was overwhelming. Mom blogs and news outlets across the country picked up the story. Since then, the list of hospitals, WIC centers, and birthing centers that distribute this breastfeeding support bag has grown to 523!

"Cottonwood Kids has provided hospital birth centers with creative gifts for over 15 years," says Maurer. "Being in this market, I became inspired by the nurses, doctors, midwives, and doulas who wanted to stop giving away formula bags to their new moms and who were ardently promoting and supporting breastfeeding, but didn't have an alternative. Working with so many people who are dedicated to supporting moms and offering them healthy choices made me realize that there was a need for a low-cost, high-impact breastfeeding support bag that they could give to their patients."

The ultimate goal is to spread the Healthy Baby Bag program to every hospital where one of the 4 million annual U.S. births takes place each year. If Erik Maurer and Cottonwood Kids succeed, it could be a bright spot in the history of breastfeeding.

We have a long way to go before breastfeeding has the same promotional support in the maternity ward that formula has today. With more involvement from companies that support breastfeeding mothers, I hope that number will continue to grow.