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In New York City, the outcry over a public health policy gives new meaning to the term nanny state. Starting next month, dozens of hospitals will adopt tighter standards for when they give out baby formula. It is an effort to encourage more breastfeeding. But critics, many of them mothers, say the city is getting involved where it doesn't belong. NPR's Joel Rose has the story.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The maternity ward at North Central Bronx Hospital sees about 1,700 newborns a year.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
ROSE: Long before those hungry babies arrive, their mothers have heard about the benefits of breastfeeding.
AMERICA TREVINO: It's always the right temperature, the right everything, the right ingredients, so it's more convenient.
ROSE: America Trevino is a lactation consultant at North Central Bronx. She says breast-feeding can help new mothers lose weight, and breast milk can help babies fight off disease.
TREVINO: The baby doesn't have any way of fighting infections in the beginning, but it's getting the protection through the breast milk, through antibodies that helps to build a strong immune system to fight off infections.
ROSE: That's what convinced Dominique Trinidad to breast-feed her daughter, who was born here three days ago.
DOMINIQUE TRINIDAD: It's more healthier for her than the formula, and it's easier. You don't have to prepare any formula in a bottle.
ROSE: It's clear that hospital officials here want to steer new moms away from the bottle. North Central Bronx is one of 27 hospitals in New York that volunteered to participate in a city initiative called Latch on NYC. They've agreed to stop giving away free formula in gift bags from manufacturers and to make nurses sign out bottles of formula as they would any other medication. Hospital officials are quick to point out that new moms can get baby formula if they ask for it or if there's a medical reason to use it. Still, the initiative touched a nerve with critics, including many mothers.
ADA CALHOUN: I think that any time you start to say this is the best way to do something for all women, all babies, that anybody who can't is shamed.
ROSE: Ada Calhoun is the author of the book "Instinctive Parenting" and the founding editor of the parenting website babble.com. Calhoun says she was able to breast-feed her child for almost a year, but she knows a lot of mothers who weren't, either because they couldn't find a way to breast-feed at work or because their bodies just wouldn't comply, and Calhoun says some of them felt guilty about it.
CALHOUN: New moms are pretty vulnerable people, I think, emotionally, and you already feel pretty much all the time like you're screwing something up. So to hear from other people what you're doing wrong and I think especially when you hear it from men, it can be pretty irritating.
ROSE: So it probably doesn't help when the man delivering the message is Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who's also known for his aggressive campaigns to ban smoking and large sugary sodas, though Bloomberg pointed out this week that the city is not banning baby formula regardless of container size.
MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Most public health officials want to encourage women to breast-feed at least for the first couple weeks because the outcomes are better. And if they can do it, that's great. And if they can't, they can't. You know, our job is we're not making anybody do it. We're suggesting.
ROSE: Public health officials say the city is just trying to push back against the big-money marketing efforts of companies that make infant formula. Wendy Wilcox is vice chair of the OB-GYN Department at North Central Bronx Hospital.
WENDY WILCOX: What I see from this campaign is that we're actually trying to raise awareness for the benefits of breast-feeding. It's not really selling a product. It's letting moms know that what is best for their babies, they actually, you know, have themselves.
ROSE: Wilcox admits she's a little surprised to see so much debate over the benefits of breast-feeding, but she hopes the controversy over Latch on NYC will make more people aware of them. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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