Bloomberg breastfeeding plan: This mom wants choice, not nanny

Breastfeeding, whether a mother chooses to do it or not, is the focus of the "Latch On NYC" campaign, a new way Mayor Michael Bloomberg flexes the long arm of the nanny state. Why won't he butt out of a mother's personal choice?

Paul Sakuma/AP
A new breastfeeding initiative by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (seen here in Sun Valley, Idaho July 12, 2012) is being criticized by some women because it feels like interference in a mom's choice to of how she feeds her infant.

Even as a woman who breastfed four babies, I think New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's well-intentioned but hotly contested breastfeeding initiative is going to be a bust for taking the so-called "nanny" state to a place where most moms just wish he'd butt out.

When I had the first of four sons, 18 years ago, after 24-hours of natural childbirth in a New Jersey hospital, my baby and my body did not click. I could not get that kid to latch on even with a La Leche League coach. And when he did I could not fill the order on demand. The child had lungs like an opera singer and could be heard a mile away. Finally, another nurse bustled in and barked, "You just have the wrong kind of nipples. Here's a bottle."

No, there's no such thing as having the wrong kind – that was absurd – but perhaps this is the kind of misinformation that New York public officials are trying to correct. I did eventually breastfeed the baby, as well as the other three, so I'm the most militant of breastfeeding supporters. But it's no moment of celebration for me seeing the roles reversed and women who can't or simply choose not to do what I did feeling like they're being butted by the Bloomberg nanny state. 

I want moms to know the wonderful feeling of nursing and the healthy outcomes believed to result from it, but it can be hard to do and it may not be a choice that working moms can make. Although, breastfeeding is cost-effective and great for pulling your body back into shape.

The "Latch On NYC" initiative, which begins in September, will ask mothers of newborns in 27 of 40 hospitals that deliver babies to listen to talks about the virtues of breastfeeding their babies on the "breast is best" principle. The initiative does allow mothers to request of formula if a baby won't or can't latch on – or if she just wants it. So far I think we're inbounds. Hospitals are so in the lecture groove that anyone who has ever been in one is not too thrown by that.

The mayor is trying to get his state out of the bottom of the list of those who breastfeed and off the top of the list of those where hospitals give away formula to new moms.

New York state ranks next to last by the percentage of breast-fed infants who receive supplemental formulas in hospital, at 33 percent, New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley told the Associated Press.

According to the AP the New York initiative is part of a national effort involving more than 600 hospitals, says Marsha Walker, a registered nurse and executive director of the National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy, a nonprofit based in Weston, Mass.

Then, however, we get the nanny goat on a much steeper incline and the rocks start to come loose on treacherous ground – when Bloomberg shuts the latch on the cupboards holding the formula. The idea presumably is to reduce temptation for nurses to push formula, but the image is a bad one.

Also, I am not sure how that message will translate to nurses who may then feel it's a chore to have to go through whatever the process becomes in order to sign out the formula. Will mothers who ask for formula be put in a position of feeling like bad moms for asking for the alternative? Having a baby is an intense emotional and physical experience. Giving a hospital the added prison matron image is not going to help a woman's body achieve the relaxed state it requires for the milk to "let-down."

Over 18-years and four sons, I have always had my babies room-in with me so that nurses would not bottle-feed them while I struggled to get them to latch on, because once a baby experiences the ease of the draw and richness of formula it's much harder to get them on task with mama. It's like raising a child on health food and then taking them for that one trip to McDonalds that hooks them on the wrong, er, udder. But that only led to tremendous pressure by hospital staff for me to go to the bottle because they feared the baby would not thrive.

In another New Jersey hospital with our third child, I insisted he room-in so he could nurse, but this hospital did not have a room-in policy and looked with deep suspicion on my insistence that the baby stay with me. The pressure nurses exerted trying to bottle-feed the baby was intense.

When a pediatrician who had not attended the birth noticed the baby's collarbone was broken (a common birth injury that the pediatrician attending the birth had not notated) the nurse who was coming in to try once again to force me to bottle feed called Child Protective Services. My husband called the doctor who delivered our son and barricaded the door with an armchair and sat in it until the OBGYN could get there to tell them the collar bone break was a common birth injury and breastfeeding was not evidence of bad parenting.

So today the pendulum swings. The formula is on lock-down and nurses are encouraged to be militant for the noncommercial cause.

I feel badly for the me 2.0 who may be in a New York City hospital being eyed as a potential formula cat burglar or feeling hovered over by well-meaning authorities who need to know that sometimes the best way to help is to give the information and then just butt out.

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