Distributing samples of infant formula and marketing breastmilk substitutes to new mothers is in direct violation of the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes. Israel is a signatory to the Code and the Israeli Health Ministry recommends exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months to prevent illness and health problems in both mothers and babies.
Israeli government hospitals have been accepting money from formula companies for years. Hospitals agree to use only one brand of formula in their newborn ward, with the expectation that parents will be influenced by the unspoken endorsement once they are home.
Now the Hebrew blog Cafe Al Chalav by Adi Yotam reports that Maccabi, the second-largest health fund in Israel, has begun distributing 450 grams of “Optimil” infant formula to new mothers in its fund. Yotam estimates that around 35,000 couples in Maccabi give birth each year. Each kit has the potential of earning Optimil and its marketers NIS 4500, the average cost of formula over a baby’s lifetime. If only a small percentage of mothers wean to their formula, it’s quite a good return for NIS 100 (at retail prices) worth of product. We don’t know how much Maccabi is getting out of the deal.
Formula marketers are not interested in helping out young couples. They know that samples are simply the best way to undermine breastfeeding and introduce brand loyalty to the 90% of Israeli mothers who planned to breastfeed. Those who have free samples in the house are more likely to offer formula than those that don’t.
Since breastfeeding follows the principle of supply and demand, supplementing can lead to a vicious cycle and undesired weaning. The milk supply is most vulnerable in the early weeks, just when the mother and baby are recovering from birth and getting the hang of breastfeeding. Early supplements change the chemistry of the baby’s gut and increase the risk of illness and allergies.
Maccabi is supposed to be in the business of protecting health, not undermining it. Accepting money to distribute a product that puts new babies at risk is both cynical and unethical. It’s also a bad financial move: Maccabi will have to shell out more in long-term health-care costs, since not breastfeeding is linked to higher rates of illness. (See here and here.)
Bottle-feeding harms the environment because of the need to manufacture, transport and dispose of bottles and formula. Preparing formula and washing bottles uses spare water resources. Leftover formula spoils quickly and must be thrown out.
Whether or not you belong to Maccabi, you can write to complain about this new “benefit.” And there’s no need to accept a “gift” that may hurt your chances of breastfeeding and cause problems for your baby. If you have sore nipples or are concerned about your baby getting enough milk, seek professional help from the volunteer organization La Leche League or from a qualified lactation consultant (IBCLC).
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