- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 31, 2012

NEW YORK (AP) - New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has a message for new mothers: Breast-feed your baby, if possible.

Starting in September, dozens of city hospitals will ask mothers of newborns to listen to talks about why their breast milk is better than the sample formulas many hospitals offer for free. Then the women can decide for themselves, says the mayor.

Bloomberg has been ribbed as the city’s “nanny” for pushing programs aimed at making New Yorkers healthier _ from clamping down on big sugar-loaded drinks to creating no-smoking zones in public places.

Now, under the “Latch On NYC” initiative, 27 of 40 hospitals in the city that deliver babies will no longer hand out promotional formula unless it’s for medical reasons, or at a mother’s request.

“Most public health officials around the country think this is a great idea,” Bloomberg said at a City Hall briefing earlier this week. “The immunities that a mother has built up get passed on to the child, so the child is healthier.”

He says formulas remain an acceptable solution if a mother cannot breastfeed, whether for health reasons or because her schedule does not allow it.

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.

In 2011, Rhode Island became the first state to stop giving away free formula to mothers while educating them on the benefits of nursing. Massachusetts followed suit.

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 said. The figure is 38 percent for New Jersey.

By contrast, only 8 percent of newborns in Vermont are fed formula just after birth, Farley said.

Walker calls the practice of including such gifts to new mothers “a very potent form of marketing by manufacturers.”

Hospitals, she says, “are in the business of providing health care, not marketing pricey products to vulnerable patients.”

One such patient was Beth Schwartz, a Manhattan mother of four who had trouble breast-feeding when her first child was born.

“In a moment of weakness, I defaulted to the formula,” she said. “The fact that the hospital gave it to me led me to use it, because I might not otherwise have gone out to buy it.”

Schwartz said her doctor didn’t know enough about breast-feeding to instruct her, and she should have gone to a lactation consultant who could have helped her. The now 46-year-old mother did exactly that for her second baby.

“I got the proper support for breast-feeding, and I refused to take the formula home,” she said.

Health experts from the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics have been encouraging nursing for years, saying benefits include milk rich in nutrients and antibodies that protect a baby. It’s also easier to digest and is cost-free.

Critics say the government should not interfere with a mother’s choice.