The ongoing formula shortage has left millions of families faced with the added stress of not knowing how they’re going to feed their little ones. Pandemic supply chain issues and the Abbott formula recall have left many stores and online retailers wiped of their stock. According to Datassembly, in early May the national baby formula out-of-stock percentage was 43 percent.
Countless parents are trying to navigate this unbelievably challenging situation. And as if the formula shortage isn’t hard enough, some people have responded to the crisis by offering some unhelpful advice: “Why not just breastfeed?”
The truth is that there are many reasons why breastfeeding either doesn’t work out, isn’t an option or isn’t the right choice for families.
Some women have low supply, are recovering from serious illnesses or taking medications that could pass into breast milk. Cancer patients going through radiation, those suffering from perinatal anxiety or depression, and those with conditions like hypoplastic breasts may not be able to breastfeed, not to mention families who used a gestational surrogate or adopted. There are a myriad of physical challenges that can make breastfeeding painful, such as mastitis, clogged ducts, milk blisters and thrush. And the list goes on.
Then there’s the fact that lack of universal paid parental leave in the U.S. makes it even harder for many new moms to dedicate time to breastfeeding. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for the birth of a newborn or adopting a child, but the law only applies to certain employees at certain companies. If you have to go back to work immediately or shortly after giving birth, breastfeeding can be difficult or impossible.
Of course, families also don’t need a specific reason not to breastfeed. How to feed your baby is a personal and complicated decision, and formula is simply the right choice for many.
“Formula keeps babies fed,” says Gina Posner, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician practicing at MemorialCare Medical Group in Fountain Valley, California, and member of the What to Expect Medical Review Board. ”There always needs to be an option for people who for one reason or another can’t feed their baby with breast milk.”
This is something I know firsthand. When I got pregnant with my son in 2015, I was confident that I would breastfeed. I researched the science and many benefits of breastfeeding. A major selling point for me was that breast milk was free, or so I naively thought at the time, and beefing up my son’s college fund quickly became life goals (obviously). I was also formula-fed as a child and wanted to offer the gold standard to my baby. As much as I knew fed was best, it was a hard sell not to want to breastfeed.
I had my mind made up, but I wasn’t prepared for the reality of developing prenatal and postpartum anxiety, and how that would impact my ability to breastfeed.
While I was pregnant, my anxious thoughts would lead me to obsessively count kicks during my third trimester, or nearly break down in tears during my commute home from work over a slew of irrational thoughts that made complete sense at the time. It became a daily battle to calm my off-the-charts ruminating on all the things that could go wrong during my pregnancy, and I sought therapy for support.
While my therapist helped, my anxiety about giving birth grew stronger as my due date approached. When that day finally arrived, I labored for 19 hours before needing a C-section because I hadn’t fully dilated. I felt like a failure, but was also overwhelmed by the joy of having our wonder baby finally enter the world. To my relief, he was healthy, and all of my worries melted away — until it was time to feed him.
Recovering from the C-section wasn’t easy. I remember being wheeled into triage and throwing up profusely. The white lights in the hospital room blurred my husband’s concerned face. By the time I made it to my room, I felt like I had been hit by a truck. All I wanted to do was rest, but after a short time of settling in, I tried to breastfeed. It was the worst feeling ever. My mind and body were completely drained, and the night nurse offered to supplement with formula. Again, the feeling of failure sunk in. It wasn’t supposed to play out this way.
When I got home from the hospital, I decided to exclusively use formula. I worried I wasn’t providing the best for my child, but breastfeeding and pumping really took a toll on my mental health, which I was already struggling with during pregnancy.
Now, looking back, I wish I could give myself a hug. I was doing the best I could and that was good enough. Most importantly, formula was simply the right choice for us. Because we used formula, I was able to rest and take breaks when I needed to. My partner could step in and help with feeding sessions. He wanted me to get the care and support I needed, and part of that came with the new liquid gold for us: formula.
When I got pregnant for the second time, I immediately knew that I would formula-feed again. I didn’t want to force my body to produce milk at the cost of my emotional stability. I went straight to formula and didn’t feel an ounce of regret or guilt. My children had a happier and more peaceful mom, and that was worth every penny.
More than ever, I now understand that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to feeding your child. Whether you choose to breastfeed, pump, formula-feed or do some combination of all three, every mom deserves compassion and empathy. That’s especially true in stressful times like these.