Mayor Bloomberg: Breastfeed or Else

Bloomberg enthusiastically favors breastfeeding infants. But he is not content to simply express his view for your consideration.


New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg cares a whole, whole lot about what you drink. First he acted to take away your 32-ounce Big Gulp. But be aware you don't have complete latitude among non-sugary beverages. He also wants to take away your baby formula.

The old axiom says conservatives want to keep the government out of your wallet and liberals want to keep it out of your bedroom. On the latter point, Bloomberg begs to differ.

As long as you're having sex, he'll respect your privacy. If that sex produces a baby, it's a different story.

Bloomberg enthusiastically favors breastfeeding infants. But he is not content to simply express his view for your consideration. He wants to use the power of government to induce conformity to his preference.

The city health department has already mounted a campaign to promote nursing with the slogan, "Breast milk is best for your baby," displayed on posters in subways and hospitals. Gentle persuasion, however, has not gotten the unanimous compliance that Bloomberg desires. So starting next month, all public hospitals in New York City will enforce rules to deter any mother who would think of contaminating her newborn with canned liquids.

If you want to use infant formula in the hospital, you will have to ask a nurse for it. The nurse will be required to deliver a grim lecture on why you are making a mistake. If you persist, the formula will be taken from its locked location, but the staff will have to sign it out, keep records on its distribution and forward the information to the health department. It may be easier to get marijuana.

In other hospitals in other cities, parents who are checking out get free bags, provided by formula companies, containing formula and other items of possible use to parents. That won't be allowed in the 27 New York hospitals operating under the Bloomberg rules. You want formula? Go buy it, somewhere else, if you dare.

This approach brings to mind the old totalitarian rule: Everything not forbidden is compulsory. If breastfeeding is good, why shouldn't everyone do it? And if some choose not to do it, why respect their choices? Bloomberg and the groups endorsing his policy are determined to get their way no matter what the desires of those who do the actual childbearing and child feeding.

Their motives are doubtless sincere. A raft of research indicates that breastfed children have higher IQs, fewer illnesses and less susceptibility to obesity than those who were deprived. The American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, urges nursing exclusively for a full six months.

Some advocates therefore regard infant formula as a public health menace. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has proposed mandatory warning labels on formula containers.

But infant formula is not the moral equivalent of unfiltered Camels. Though scientists almost universally agree it's better for all sorts of reasons, the evidence is less overwhelming than you might think.

New York Times health columnist Jane Brody reports that "no randomized, controlled trials—the gold standard of scientific research—have proved that breast-fed babies fare better, at least in industrialized countries."

Correlation is not cause. Most NBA players are tall, but playing in the NBA does not increase height.

Women who nurse tend to be better educated and wealthier than those who don't. Women with the time and inclination to breastfeed may devote more attention to their kids' development. Factors like these could play a big role.

But all this hasn't stopped the breastfeeding campaign from acquiring a judgmental and punitive edge. I know one young mother who, when her baby needed more nutrition than she could personally supply, felt guilty buying formula. "It would have been less embarrassing to buy condoms," she told me. "I scanned it myself so the cashiers wouldn't know I'm a bad mother."

Breastfeeding zealots downplay the numerous factors that cause mothers to supplement breast milk with formula or to give up nursing altogether—pain, inadequate lactation, job demands and illnesses requiring medications that infants should avoid.

Bloomberg can't know the unique circumstances and alternatives confronted by individual women. They can. They also have even more stake than he does in the health and well-being of their children. So he should grant great deference to their choices.

As a rule, it's a good idea for the government to stay off our backs. Fronts, too.