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August 6 2012

The Nanny State Comes to the Nursery

The Wall Street Journal
Carrie L. Lukas

The Nanny State Comes to the Nursery
Regulating what moms feed their newborns isn't the government's job.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg kicked off the summer by announcing that New Yorkers will no longer be permitted to buy sugary soft drinks in servings larger than 16 ounces. Convinced his constituents are thirsty for even more government oversight, the mayor is now looking to control what new moms feed their newborns by encouraging city hospitals to limit access to baby formula.

New York City women—known for their independence and outspokenness—should reject Mayor Bloomberg's intrusion into this profoundly personal decision. All Americans should take heed of what's happening in New York, where government bureaucrats who respect few limits on their power to run our lives are creating a counterproductive culture of alarmism when it comes to parenting.

First, a what-should-be-unnecessary disclaimer: I'm a mother of four who breast-fed each of the first three for more than a year. My four-month-old has yet to have a sip of formula. Given the health benefits for mother and child, I encourage all new moms to give breast-feeding a try.

Yet breast-feeding can be difficult for those moms with babies who struggle to latch on or who have physical problems of their own. Many women sincerely wish they could breast-feed but can't make it work. Other women, while aware of the benefits, simply make a different choice.

Should these mothers be made to feel guilty about not breast-feeding? Let's leave that to their mothers-in-law. That's not the role of politicians or regulators. After all, while breast milk may be best for babies, formula is a very good second best.

Mayor Bloomberg may also be overlooking how the policies he pushes—having hospitals sequester formula, track the reason for the use of each bottle, and lecture women who request it—will work in practice.

Women exhausted from long labors and struggling to recover physically may benefit from a formula-feeding that provides them with much-needed respites. Those better-rested moms may then be more successful with breast-feeding attempts.

Restricting access to formula also sends a message that breast-feeding and formula are binary choices. Today, many women combine breast-feeding with formula use, allowing babies to enjoy the benefits of breast milk. Yet women turned off from physically grueling, every-other-hour feeding schedules in the hospital may give up and turn entirely to formula when they return home.

It wouldn't be the first time that such government guidance has backfired.

Take tuna fish. During my first pregnancy in 2005, too much tuna fish was on the list of no-nos for pregnant women. Eating too much tuna and other seafood risked mercury poisoning, I was warned. I dutifully eliminated tuna—formerly a lunch-time staple—from my diet only to learn later that the official government-sanctioned guidance changed.

It turns out that mercury in tuna was never really much of a threat, and that pregnant women who were avoiding tuna were becoming deficient in the brain-building nutrients that come from fish. By accepting the alarmism of the day, pregnant women like me did our babies a disservice.

Today, parents are bombarded by advice and warnings from politicians and media about how to raise children. It's hard to see how all this overregulation and alarmism are creating better parents or healthier kids. Parents peppered with stories about sports injuries may discourage healthy exercise and athletics, leaving their kids less fit and vulnerable to serious injury.

Government overreach also creates economic costs. Hospitals trying to comply with the mayor's new program will face additional administrative hassles related to documenting formula use.

Mr. Bloomberg's push to eliminate large sodas could mean less revenue for city restaurants, many of which are already struggling to survive, and fewer jobs for New Yorkers. The multitude of new federal and local efforts advanced under the banner of better health—from soda and sugar taxes and marketing restrictions, to limitations on the use of ingredients from transfats to salt—could drive up food costs, which are already burdening cash-strapped American families.

Yet that's not the primary reason to oppose these efforts: Micromanagement is not an appropriate use of government power, and it's an insult to a free people. Mr. Bloomberg and other meddlesome politicians should leave parenting to parents.

Ms. Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women's Forum.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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