Breastfeeding taskforce

A Note on Defending Breastfeeding During a Formula Shortage

By now, you’ve probably seen news stories about the shortage of formula in the United States. ability of manufacturers to meet demand.

The shortage is causing intense stress for formula-dependent families as retailers resort to rationing purchases and customers find store shelves empty of big-name brands.

It really is a crisis. And sadly, some breastfeeding advocates use scarcity to tout the benefits of breastfeeding: This is not a problem if you are breastfeeding!It’s free!” It’s “readily available!” It’s nature’s perfect food! It’s “what God intended!” He will never be remembered!

People? This is neither the time nor the place.

To be clear, I’m a big fan of breastfeeding. My mother is a retired lactation consultant and I was raised in La Leche League meetings. I breastfed my three children in infancy and pumped breast milk to feed my foster nephew. I’ve written articles and made videos advocating for breastfeeding in public. I am in love with the miraculous way our body can grow a whole person and too create food for that person. It’s incredible. Breastfeeding is awesome in my book.

But I also live in the real world. I know breastfeeding doesn’t always work for a wide variety of reasons, which I can’t judge. I know how distressed most mothers are by every decision they make, and how easy it is to feel ashamed for not doing what people say is “best.” I know formula milk saves lives.

For years there has been a battle of slogans between “breast is best” and “fed is best”, when in reality neither statement is quite accurate. The idea “breast is best” is a simple way to state that breast milk is the most nutritionally beneficial food for most babies. It’s not a judgment; this is the medical consensus. The idea “feeding is better” is a simple way of saying that the most important thing is that a baby is fed. It’s not a dismissal; it is reality. But none of these statements encompass the complex truth that there is a lot of misinformation that makes informed decisions difficult and that there are millions of individual circumstances that can impact how a baby is finally fed.

However, none of this matters when there is a shortage of formula milk. Babies who depend on formula milk need it. And they need it immediately. Period.

Now is not the time to advocate for breastfeeding, even if you are passionate about it. Parents impacted by the formula shortage are already worried enough; adding to their stress with messages that could induce guilt or shame is a totally shitty thing to do right now. It’s like saying to someone who has fallen out of a boat and is wading through the water, “See, that’s why people should learn to swim.” That’s not advocacy, that’s cruelty.

I know some people will take any mention of breastfeeding as a criticism of formula, and I don’t think people should avoid talking about the benefits of breastfeeding in general. But there are times and places for advocacy and education and there are times and places where it is of no use. We are in the last time and place right now. This formula shortage might naturally push some new moms to breastfeed, but it’s not a situation that should be exploited to convince people to breastfeed.

If we want to be helpful, the best thing we can do right now is to offer advice and support that can actually help. Dr. Steven A. Abrams, MD, Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, suggests the following when a parent is in dire need. Here are the things we can help you with:

  • Talk to your pediatrician and ask if they can get you a can from the local formula reps or one of the charities that have them. Your local WIC office may also be able to suggest places to look.
  • Check small stores and pharmacies, which may not be out of stock when larger stores are.
  • If you can afford it, buy formula online until in-store shortages ease. Buy from reputable distributors and pharmacies rather than individual sales or auction sites. Do not import any preparation from abroad, as the imported preparation is not reviewed by the FDA.
  • For most babies, it’s okay to switch to any available formula, including store brands, unless your baby is taking a specific heavily hydrolyzed or amino acid-based formula like EleCare (no brand store does not exist). Ask your pediatrician about recommended specialty formula alternatives for your baby.
  • Check social media groups. There are groups dedicated to infant feeding and infant formula, and members may have ideas on where to find infant formula. Be sure to check your pediatrician’s advice.
Experts warn parents not to dilute formula or make homemade formula, as neither is a safe option, so don’t share formula recipes floating around the internet.

The best support people can offer right now is finding formula for a family in need. That’s it. Reserve breastfeeding education and advocacy for people who are genuinely seeking information, not those facing an already stressful crisis.

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