Go Ask Mom

Many moms can't just breastfeed during the formula shortage. Here's why

I can't imagine how mothers are feeling right now, when they can't find what they need to feed their babies.

Posted Updated
Jessica Patrick
, WRAL senior multiplatform producer
This time one year ago, I was in tears every day because I was breastfeeding but still had to supplement with formula. I felt like a failure because, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't produce enough milk to feed my 1-month-old.

At that time, the formula I needed was easy to find on store shelves. So I can't imagine how mothers who use formula now are feeling, when they can't find what they need to feed their babies.

Breastfeeding is a woman's choice, but just because some moms don't breastfeed doesn't mean they don't want to or didn't try. And breastfeeding isn't something women can just "pick back up" during the formula shortage.

Now more than ever, it's time to raise awareness -- exclusively breastfeeding is not a choice for many moms, and negative comments about formula feeding are harming women, particularly during this shortage.

I have seen too many ignorant comments on social media asking why moms can't breastfeed during the formula shortage. Some of these voices sound cruel or disparaging, while others are simply from people who are misinformed about how breastfeeding works. The intent doesn't matter -- all these comments are damaging to moms struggling to produce milk.

I wish feeding my baby was as simple as 'just breastfeed'

A lot of people who aren't familiar with breastfeeding don't realize that milk production is based on supply and demand. If a woman isn't able to feed her baby or express milk with a pump, her supply will decrease.

Many women can't breastfeed or pump due to physical limitations, like illness or C-section recovery, and others have to return to work right away or in the first few months after their baby is born, where pumping can be difficult.

A breast pump at the home of Margie Smith, who has given thousands of ounces to other mothers since she produces more than her children need, in Elgin, Ill., May 19, 2022. As the nationwide baby formula shortage continues to wear on new parents struggling to keep their babies fed, some have turned to informal breast milk sharing, but experts say the practice can come with serious risks. (Mary Mathis/The New York Times)

"The biggest barrier to breastfeeding is man-made: only one out of four working mothers has access to paid maternity leave," said Alison Stuebe, MD, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UNC's School of Medicine.

"In a 2012 study, 23% of women were back at work within 10 days of giving birth," Stuebe explained. "All major medical organizations recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, continuing for a year or longer as mutually desired, but our economic policies set families up to fail."

Morgan Edwards, a working mother of three, is a nurse. She said, due to job demands, she was never able to exclusively breastfeed her first baby.

"With my first child, I worked with adults and children with special needs who I couldn’t take my eye off, let alone try to pump while at work, so I started supplementing [formula] at 4 weeks and stopped breastfeeding at 3 months," she said.

Her second child would never latch, so Edwards took on "exclusive pumping" at home and at work, something breastfeeding moms know is an extremely difficult task.

"No matter how 'baby friendly' my hospital claimed to be, I could never get the time I needed to pump at work," Edwards said.

That's because pumping sessions can take 15 minutes or longer, plus it takes time to set up the pump, clean the pump parts and store the milk in a refrigerator. For much of their first year, babies need to eat at least every 2 to 3 hours -- so a woman may need to pump between 3 to 4 times during an 8-hour workday.

If that's not enough, breastfeeding and pumping moms also need to take in extra calories and drink extra water throughout the day to yield enough milk for their babies. Even with hands-free pumping bras, pumping moms can't always multi-task, because stress can impact milk production.

In the present day, Edwards is working full time, pumping milk during her hospital shifts while she is away from her almost-6-month-old daughter. She said pumping at work is easier than with her second child, but her supply is still decreasing enough that she needs to supplement with formula daily.

"I work in a more pump-friendly environment when I’m away from her and I nurse when I’m home, but my supply has been steadily dropping no matter how much I pump," she said. "No matter how many lactation cookies, teas, drinks, power pumping and water chugging tricks I’ve tried, my supply has been on a steady decline, so I’ve been forced to supplement a few bottles a day."

It's not just work and life demands that make breastfeeding and pumping difficult.

Some women don't ever get a chance to breastfeed due to medical issues, or they aren't able to breastfeed as often as needed to maintain their milk supply. One local mom reached out to me saying she couldn't breastfeed after her emergency C-section.

According to Stuebe, "health conditions such as preterm birth, preeclampsia and diabetes" are also linked with lower breastfeeding rates.

Whether it's due to medical problems or a lack of access to breastfeeding education, support, or resources, many moms aren't able to make enough milk despite all their efforts.

"We looked at national data on unplanned, undesired weaning, and we found that about 12% of women stopped breastfeeding earlier than they wanted to because of problems with breast pain, low milk supply and difficulty getting the baby to latch," Stuebe said.

Like every other organ in the body, the breast does not work 100% of the time, Stuebe explained.

In 2001, pediatrician Marianne Neifert wrote, "A health care professional would never tell a diabetic woman that every pancreas can make insulin or insist to a devastated infertility patient that every woman can get pregnant. The fact is that lactation, like all physiologic functions, sometimes fails because of various medical causes.”

For Edwards, not being able to exclusively breastfeed her baby was already hard. Now it is now even more discouraging.

"I wish I could make all the milk my little one needs so I could save the formula for mamas that can’t for other reasons," she said.

How to help

Ask friends, family members and co-workers with babies if they are struggling to find formula, especially if they need specific blends, and be on the lookout while you're shopping. Some mothers are donating their extra breast milk to mothers who can't find formula through milk banks like this one at WakeMed.

Stuebe said, apart from better leave policies for working mothers, healthcare providers need more education to help women who want to breastfeed successfully.

"We know that many health professionals don’t learn about breastfeeding in their training, and they give advice based on their personal experiences rather than evidence-based recommendations," Stuebe said. "And the evidence for how to address breastfeeding problems is limited – much of the research on breastfeeding looks at the chemical composition of milk, rather exploring how to make it easier for mothers to provide milk for their children."

There is also a disparity in research that includes pregnant and breastfeeding women.

"Women who are breastfeeding are routinely excluded from research studies, like COVID vaccine trials, which leaves parents and providers without good information to make decisions about taking a medication while breastfeeding," Stuebe said.


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