Hospitals sending wrong message to mothers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 July, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 July, 2002, 12:00am

I refer to the letter by Maggie Holmes headlined 'Ill-informed doctors try to discourage breastfeeding' (Sunday Morning Post, June 30).

Her assertion that formula milk is promoted extensively in Hong Kong's hospitals, is borne out by my own experience.

In contrast to the strong promotion of breastfeeding at the public antenatal clinics I attended, once my baby was delivered in a public hospital the support I was given for breastfeeding was patchy at best. The nurses encouraged the use of formula milk to settle the baby, even though there was no evidence that I was unable to breastfeed. I was even advised (wrongly) that the baby was at a higher risk of developing neonatal jaundice if I didn't give her a bottle. At a time when most women are exhausted and feeling vulnerable it is not surprising that so many opt for formula milk in the face of such attitudes and advice.

The latest figures from the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative state that in Hong Kong 52 per cent of babies are being breastfed on discharge from hospital.

This figure is based on the percentage of mothers who are doing any breastfeeding at all when they leave hospital. In reality most of these mothers are already supplementing with infant formula and many will be using bottles.

Using formula at such an early stage may reduce the mother's milk supply and using a bottle may make it difficult for the baby to latch on to the mother's breast.

These factors combined can lead to sore nipples, a lack of confidence in the mother's mind about her own abilities to feed the baby, and a swift end to the breastfeeding relationship.

A more useful figure would be the percentage of babies breastfeeding full-time on discharge from hospital. I doubt if it would make double digits.

The many health benefits of breastfeeding to the baby, and the mother, are well documented. For a society that places so much emphasis on education, it is surprising that the importance that breastmilk plays in cognitive development is not better promoted.

While the quality of health care for mother and baby at public hospitals is generally excellent (and better than most private hospitals) it is surprising that on this one aspect that is so critical to the long-term health of infants they should fall down.

The strong pro-breastfeeding message from antenatal care needs to be better translated into postnatal care.