'Breastapo' claims create climbdown

The Ministry of Health is reviewing aggressive breastfeeding tactics after women across the country spoke out to the Sunday Star-Times about draconian policies over bottle-feeding babies.

A Ministry of Health spokesman confirmed it would address the issues raised by the Sunday Star- Times with all the district health boards. This included reminding women's health service managers of the hospitals' requirements to provide information to women intending to use formula. The reaction comes four years after a Government report warned of the stigma and lack of information surrounding formula use.

Southern District Health Board last week agreed to provide free meals to both bottle-feeding and breastfeeding mothers who had sick babies - initially the service was available only to breast- feeding mothers.

Auckland District Health Board is also reviewing its maternity policy. There was no blanket policy on providing meals for mothers - staff use their discretion.

Our coverage of the formula feeding taboo prompted a massive response from parents across the country, with hundreds of mothers speaking out about the frustration, anger and despair caused by the pressure to breastfeed. They spoke of being bullied by the "breastapo", breastfeeding parents being given special treatment at hospitals, and women being verbally abused for putting formula into their supermarket trolleys.

No-one disputed that breast- milk was the best option, but for many of the women there were underlying health problems that prevented them from exclusively breastfeeding, including cancer and baby allergies.

"I felt horrifically judged and had many comments and the Spanish inquisition from the supposedly caring profession," a mother of two who suffered post- natal depression wrote.

A Wellington mother said she had to pay for parking at Wellington hospital while visiting her premature baby at the neonatal intensive care unit. Mums delivering expressed breast milk were given free passes.

She found the "baby friendly" breastfeeding posters and policies as "incredibly hurtful to women who are in the fragile and unenviable position" of having to bottle- feed their children who are born prematurely. Capital and Coast DHB could not confirm whether there was such a parking policy.

The issues around lack of information are not new. A Government report in 2008 warned mothers were often preparing bottle feeds incorrectly. Failing to properly sterilise a bottle risks the baby's health. Many women knew nothing about safe bottle-feeding until they urgently needed to feed their baby with formula, according to the NZ Food Safety Authority research.

One mother said she had to wait for the Plunket nurse to visit before learning about formula. "Six weeks is a long time to go without advice if you don't really know what you're doing.'

Some feared the backlash of raising the subject of formula with pro-breastfeeding nurses and midwives. Mothers used Google and milk-tin labels for the answers, even though the health and disability code states they have a right to all available information including "an explanation of the options available, including an assessment of the expected risks, side-effects, benefits, and costs of each option'.

NZ Breastfeeding Authority has defended the baby-friendly policies. Executive officer Julie Stufkens said there is no intention to make mothers feel guilty or hide facts on formula. She said the response from mothers shows some staff are not fully aware of their responsibilities to educate mums on formula feeding. Ensuring the policy was implemented correctly took time and was something they were still working on.

"We want to see every mother get the best possible care."

Mothers have also criticised the lack of open discussion about formula. Stufkens said this was an international regulation to avoid dirty tactics from formula firms.

"The World Health Organisation and Unicef had major concerns that formula companies were being aggressive in their marketing. We adhere to that." Hospitals are bound by WHO baby-friendly policies aiming to increase exclusive breastfeeding rates because of the health benefits for babies.

Sunday Star Times