What is it about the health profession that causes good people to sometimes lose their sense of proportion.

The case of the mother who was denied a meal at Dunedin Hospital because she was bottle-feeding her baby is not the first of its kind. It brings to mind the opposition, from various quarters but led by the La Leche League, to an image of All Black Piri Weepu bottle-feeding his baby.

Nor is excessive zeal confined to the breast-is-best campaign. The anti-smoking lobby not long ago called for a ban on candy cigarettes. But the breast milk cause seems particularly susceptible.

Dunedin Hospital has changed its policy in response to the complaint from the poor woman whose child was in the paediatric ward and was upset that only breastfeeding mothers were offered a meal. The Southern District Health Board has changed the policy in response to the complaint. It appears it was not previously aware of it.


The board's deputy chief officer of nursing and midwifery said the policy was a well-intentioned effort to support breast-feeding and had been in place since 2004. In other words, for the past eight years staff in the paediatric ward have been systematically embarrassing mothers who cannot, or choose not to, breast-feed.

Or did the policy apply only to those who had the choice? It would have had to apply to all bottle users if the policy was rationalised on the pretext that women producing breast milk have a greater need of nutrients. It is extraordinary that in eight years there is no record of a complaint until now. How many bottle-feeding mothers in that time have meekly accepted this treatment?

Many might question why any of the women are given meals at public expense. Their children are in hospital, not them. Parents can be encouraged to spend long periods at the hospital and they naturally are a help to nurses caring for the child, but the parents are healthy and capable of going out for meals.

District health boards differ in their willingness to feed non-patients. If the southern board's grant will stretch to it, the policy should at least be consistent. To use food as an incentive for approved health behaviour is childish. What next? Might the heavy be denied a meal to demonstrate disapproval of "obesity"?

Health is a hard subject to keep in proportion. Nobody is content to be partially healthy. If an injury or ailment can be fixed, we want it fixed. Medical professionals will spare no effort to restore a patient to full health if they can. Many find it hard to understand habits and life choices that are less than ideal for health.

Women who can breastfeed their baby but prefer not to, seem to cause particular angst for some health professionals. Possibly it has to do with the fact that this is not just a personal choice, it deprives a baby of the sustenance the profession considers ideal.

But campaigns for healthy practices often underrate their success. Not content with a convincing argument, they press on to enforce it needlessly and invite ridicule for a worthy cause.

The Weepu advertisement depicted a man feeding a baby the only way a man can. It posed no conceivable threat to breastfeeding or any other health campaign. But he can at least count himself lucky he was not in Dunedin Hospital at the time.