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Shaming mothers for not breastfeeding won’t solve formula shortages

There are many physical and economic reasons that parents use baby formula. Pretending otherwise is making a bad situation worse.

By Katie Stallard

For the first two weeks of my son’s life I breastfed him every minute of every day. Or at least that’s what it felt like. He needed to be fed every two to three hours, and he nursed for around an hour at a time, so the days and nights blurred together in an endless, exhausting haze. Still, I would look down at his happy little milk-drunk face and feel good that I was nourishing him and providing everything he needed. Until I realised that was not what was happening at all.

When my husband and I carried him proudly back into the paediatrician’s office for his two-week check-up, we found out that he hadn’t regained his birth weight yet (all babies lose weight when they are first born as they transition from 24/7 nutrition in the womb to life in the outside world, but most regain it within a couple of weeks). The doctor asked if I was exclusively breastfeeding, which I was, and sent us home with instructions not to panic and to check in again in a couple of days when we could start to supplement breastmilk with a little formula milk if needed. Of course, we panicked, bought an electronic scale and began weighing our son several times a day to check whether he was gaining weight. He wasn’t. We reported the numbers back to the doctor, who told us to start offering him a little formula after nursing, and then a bit more, and then a lot.

In my determination to breastfeed my baby, I was starving him. When I look back at the photos of him now, I can see how thin he had become, how gaunt that happy little face really was. In fact, he wasn’t milk-drunk at all. He was exhausted from desperately trying to nurse for hours at a time. By the time we figured this out, with the help of a lactation consultant who realised he was having difficulty latching, he was down to the eighteenth percentile for weight (compared with other babies his age) and my milk supply was dwindling. The consultant coached me through some techniques that might help, and I started pumping breastmilk with a hospital-grade contraption — an experience that made me look, and feel, much like a dairy cow — to try to rebuild my supply. I kept trying to nurse my son for a while, but eventually we switched to the bottle, me and my husband taking turns to feed him pumped breastmilk and formula. He gained weight steadily, started sleeping better (which meant we all did), and is now a happy and healthy little boy.

The reason I am telling this story (and straying far from my usual beat), is to make clear how insulting and offensive it is to see so many people responding to the real and worsening baby formula shortage in the US — caused by supply chain problems and safety recalls — by advising parents to “just breastfeed” their babies instead. Search “baby formula shortage” on Twitter, and you will find posts haranguing “lazy mothers” for failing to use their breasts in the way “God intended”. One man commented that he hoped this would serve as a “wakeup call to become more self-sufficient — God literally designed mothers to feed their babies”. Even the actress Bette Midler weighed in: “TRY BREASTFEEDING! It’s free and available on demand.”

Breastfeeding is not free. Breastmilk pumps run into the hundreds of dollars, as do visits to the lactation consultant if they are not covered by health insurance. Then there is the time many parents need to take off work (which in many cases is unpaid if it is even possible) to be able to stay at home to nurse their babies in the first place, or pump milk for them. It is also not true that endless milk is simply available on demand. Even with all of the resources I had and the extraordinarily privileged life I am lucky to lead — with a supportive husband and family, good health insurance and great medical care — I could not produce enough milk to feed my baby. 

My experience is not unusual. In fact, only one in four infants in the US is still being exclusively breastfed by the time they are six months old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That figure is even lower for black and Hispanic children (at 19.8 and 23.3 per cent, respectively) and for families living in poverty (20.4 per cent). Also, not all parents are biological parents, and the advice to just “try breastfeeding” ignores the very many happy families where both parents are men. Pretending that all these babies could be fed if only their parents understood the benefits of breastfeeding and tried just a little bit harder is hurtful.

By all means, let’s talk about all the many ways we could make breastfeeding easier and support new parents, such as paid family leave, access to healthcare, lactation and nursing rooms in offices, train stations and airports, affordable childcare. But this is a separate conversation from the one about how to help families right now. The national out-of-stock rate for baby formula had reached 43 per cent by 8 May. Parents are watering down their remaining formula to make it last, scouring supermarket shelves and websites for new supplies, and wondering how they are going to feed their children next week. Let’s not make this bad situation worse by shaming families for using formula in the first place. There is a real and urgent problem with feeding American children, but it is not because their parents are not trying hard enough to breastfeed.

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