Misguided hospital policies and in-hospital promotions by infant-formula manufacturers are pushing many uneducated new mothers away from breast-feeding even though that practice may be better for their babies, a lineup of breast-feeding advocates told D.C. City Council members yesterday.

A number of health professionals and consumer advocates testified that D.C. mothers routinely are separated from their newborn babies after delivery and do not have full-time access to them so they can breast-feed. Nurses sometimes supplement breast-feeding with formula without the mother's knowledge, one group said.

Women routinely are given free samples of formula when they leave the hospitals, a form of advertising that has been effective in getting women to switch to bottle feeding, according to representatives of the D.C. Infant Formula Action Council, a group that led opposition to the use of infant formula in Third World countries.

Their comments came at a council committee hearing on legislation that would promote breast-feeding at District hospitals and restrict in-hospital practices of infant-formula manufacturers.

A spokesman for the infant-formula industry denied that manufacturers try to get women to switch from breast-feeding to bottle-feeding and said the free samples are provided to encourage women to use a particular brand of formula if they have decided to bottle-feed.

"There is a competitive advantage to having your brand distributed" by the hospital, said Robert Gelardi for the Infant Formula Council, a group that represents the country's major formula manufacturers. "The competition is . . . not between breast-feeding and formula."

Representatives for D.C. hospitals and the medical profession opposed the proposed legislation, as does the infant-formula industry, saying it would interfere with the physician-patient relationship. There was general agreement on the superiority of breast-feeding in most cases, but hospital and medical spokesmen said they could implement policy changes voluntarily to promote the practice without legislation.

"There are some unintended obstructive practices at hospitals, and no one is going to tell you differently and keep a straight face here," said Dr. Dennis O'Leary, president of the D.C. Medical Society. But legislated policy changes could lead to excessive paperwork and higher health costs and would open new areas of litigation against hospitals, said D.C. Hospital Association president Haynes Rice.

The proposed bill would require giving women unbiased information on infant-feeding, 24-hour access to their babies, and warnings on any adverse effects on lactation of drugs they are given. It would prohibit the routine distribution of formula samples. The District would be the first jurisdiction in the country to pass such a law.

The bill was introduced by City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) and supported by 11 of the 12 other City Council members, but some appeared to be backing away from it yesterday. Jarvis said after the hearing that she wants more information on hospitals' actual practices and what they are willing to do voluntarily before deciding what legislation might be necessary.