Booby Traps Series: Two out of three hospitals market formula to new moms, but the tide is turning

This is the 34th in a series on Booby Traps, made possible by the generous support of Motherlove Herbal Company.

The formula “gift bags” given out by hospitals in my area (until recently) were easy to spot.  I saw them at the mall, at new moms groups, and at breastfeeding clinics.

And it got me thinking:  Whoever came up with the idea of marketing infant formula through hospitals was one smart cookie.  Why?  Because it works.

How do I know it works?  Let’s just review the evidence from multiple studies, some of them randomized controlled trials (courtesy of Ban the Bags):

But, as smart as this idea was on the part of formula companies, I think that the tide is turning.  Some evidence of that:

– A recent study showed a decline in the distribution of the bags.  Time reported, “In 2007, just 14% of hospitals refused to give out formula samples. Three years later, researchers checked back in with the 10 states that had distributed the most and least samples and found that the percentage of hospitals declining to distribute freebies had doubled.”

– One state (Rhode Island) has gone entirely bag-free.  Okay it’s one of the smallest states by population, but the fact that this was heralded by the state with a press conference featuring the state’s First Lady and the Lieutenant Governor makes it significant nonetheless.

– Consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, in collaboration with the US Breastfeeding Committee and numerous breastfeeding coalitions, has just launched a campaign to eliminate the formula company bags.  View their fact sheet here.

– More hospitals are becoming Baby Friendly (129 as of March 2012, up from 75 in May of 2009), and of course no Baby Friendly hospital can distribute formula bags (or take free formula, for that matter).  And the effort to increase this number will be getting a boost from the CDC.

– Kaiser Permanente recently announced that all of its hospitals will either become Baby Friendly (bag-free) or use the Joint Commission’s exclusive breastfeeding measure.  While they did not commit to becoming “bag free” at the non-Baby Friendly hospitals, there will be significant pressure to do so if they want exclusive breastfeeding rates to rise.  I already count 24 of their 29 maternity hospitals as formula bag free.

It wasn’t too many years ago that a formula company included this statement in an old sales manual:  “Never underestimate the importance of nurses. If they are sold and serviced properly, they can be strong allies. A nurse who supports Ross is like an extra salesperson.” Here’s hoping that the days of using our health care providers to market formula are numbered.

Want to know more about formula bags and breastfeeding?  Check out this podcast interview with Dr. Alison Steube.

Did you receive a formula “gift bag” from your hospital?  Did it have an impact on your breastfeeding experience?


11 thoughts on “Booby Traps Series: Two out of three hospitals market formula to new moms, but the tide is turning

  1. We haven’t given birth yet, but we got a kit at our birthing class. It’s a Similac nourishing and nursing kit-with a huge free sample of formula! It has a little pamphlet with not so helpful information about nursing. Quit trying to be a wolf in sheep’s clothes!


  2. That sucks that it’s working. But for mothers, like me, who are going to nurse their babies, no matter how much FREE formula they receive, I will take the free diaper bag anytime! I like them and I use them! I liked nursing my other two children. And I will do my best also with our third child, due in July!


  3. We live in San Francisco, which isn’t always stereotypically “hippie”, but with breastfeeding they really are 🙂 So, the hospital was incredibly supportive, letting me breastfeed within minutes of delivering, and providing a free consultation with a lactation consultant. But, yes, I too was sent home with a Similac diaper bag, loaded with samples and coupons. And then we got two full-sized cans of formula mailed to us later, I can only assume they got the address from the hospital. I ended up selling them really cheap on eBay, because I figured better to let them get used than throw them out. But, I felt really confused by it, and disappointed in the hospital. I suppose they could use the money Similac is no doubt throwing their way, but still.


  4. Honestly, I hated the formula gift bag. I did gift some of the formula to a friend of mine who tried breastfeeding and couldn’t, but I didn’t want any of it. They also had diapers in there, though, and I’m hoping that I won’t be using those either this time around. :/


  5. Not at the hospital but at the first well baby check up at pediatricians office. Unfortunately the hospital I birthed at didn’t have very knowledgeable nurses (me either) and I was bullied into supplementing after my c section, but thats another story!


  6. I got a diaper bag when my first was born fifteen years ago, and that little sample of formula was the end of breastfeeding for us. Fast forward several years, and my hospital has stopped giving those samples/bags out. I only formula fed my first after three months, and the next three of mine were 100% breastfed.
    That bag is very appreciated, and if I were to give birth now, i would not mind another bag. No amount of free formula will make me formula feed.

    The fact remains, it did ruin my first try at breastfeeding. So, I am happy they don’t give them out! Maybe it would be nice if they had the same bags, but for breastfeeding moms? Lanisoh, breast pads, a baby blanket, a nursing cover, other helpful nursing stuff? That would be nice.


  7. I had to supplement with formula because my daughter wasnt gaining weight. The formula “organizer” I got helped us figure out she was lactose intolerant. She needs soy but we still breast feed


  8. The hospital where I delivered really pushed breast feeding which is great because we told the nurses and midwives from the very beginning “No Formula”. I have no intention of giving my daughter formula as long as I’m still producing. Shes almost 4 months old and we’re still going strong. I keep getting free samples in the mail though. All kinds. The “convenient” little single serving packs as well as full size canisters. There just sitting on top of my fridge unopened and I plan to keep it that way. 🙂


  9. I received one with our first three years ago but left it in the hospital with a not so nice note attached. Every nurse that saw us having BFing issues pushed formula on us. I BF’d her for 28 months without formula. I recently heard that hospital is working on becoming Baby Friendly. Our 2nd was born two weeks ago and we didn’t get a bag. Every nurse had some training in BFing and most of them shared stories with us of BFing their own babies. No mention of formula.


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