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Marketing to New Moms Criticized

September 1, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Hospitals, long under fire for giving out free baby formula, are coming under scrutiny for other gifts: credit card applications, life insurance brochures, chocolate bars and other products aimed at the new family.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader has been collecting stories from new moms offended by the marketing at childbirth and he’s asking the American Hospital Association to discourage the practice.

``I just don’t think the hospital should be taking on the role of facilitating corporate promotions,″ said Ann Leonard of Washington, who gave birth in July to daughter Dewi and was handed five bags of promotions on her way out of the hospital. ``They’re supposed to tell me how to take care of my baby, not help some company make sales.″

But many parents love the free stuff, and hospital nurses say the only complaints they get are when a competing hospital gives away more.

``It’s an overwhelming time,″ said Carol Rosse, spokeswoman for SSM St. Mary’s Health Center outside St. Louis, who also recently had a baby. ``You’re sort of appreciative for anything you can get your hands on.″

She and other hospital officials said the only significant criticism usually involves the free baby formula that is often included in the packages. Critics contend that giving away formula discourages moms from breast feeding, which can be frustrating at first but which medical experts consider healthier.

But Nader’s is the first organized protest over other commercial products that have crept into the gift bags. The products are packaged by national companies that give them away to hospitals, which in turn give them away to patients.

Many new mothers say they love the freebies. Brynda Fowler of Austin, Texas, said she saved $4 or $5 in diaper coupons and enjoyed the free baby wipes and free diaper bag in her gift pack.

As for the credit card and life insurance offers, ``I just threw it in the trash,″ she said.

But George Washington University Hospital, the target of Leonard’s complaint, agreed the commercial items were ``inappropriate″ and promised to replace them with neutral gifts.

``After our review of the bags’ content we found your complaints to be valid,″ Phillip S. Schaengold, the hospital’s chief executive officer, wrote Nader’s group after it lodged the complaint on Leonard’s behalf.

This is the first time the issue has been brought to the American Hospital Association’s attention. Spokesman Rick Wade said the group would research the issue and, if appropriate, suggest that its members examine their policies.

``You can overdo anything,″ Wade said, saying certain products might be ``over the line.″

At University Hospital in Cleveland, head nurse Catherine Dahlem gets calls almost every week for her staff to hand out one product or another. She doesn’t have time to sort through all of the offers, so she just uses the packages put together by national companies.

The mix can include just about any product that might interest a new parent, such as a new credit card to help buy all those new baby products, or life insurance for parents starting to plan ahead.

Companies promoting their products pay the distribution and marketing firms to be included in the packs, which are given to hospitals without charge.

``For the most part, the hospitals love getting them,″ said Kristi Goyette of American Baby Group, which distributes about 3.5 million packages each year to 4,000 hospitals.

Nader is pressing his case by collecting the names of mothers who range from annoyed to outraged.

``Here you are a new family, and you have all your anxieties, and you’re bombarded by promotional materials,″ said Hailyn Chen, 26, of South Pasadena, Calif., who gave birth last year to Katherine. ``You almost think, to be a good parent, maybe I do need to get all this stuff.″

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