People on social media are telling parents who are currently dealing with a nationwide infant formula shortage to just whip out their breasts and feed their kids the way “God intended,” as if their chest is a fridge fully stocked with cartons of milk.
But that’s not how lactation actually works. Some people can’t or choose not to breastfeed, or don’t have the time off from work or social support to maintain an adequate supply of milk for their infant.
“It’s just really ill-informed. People obviously don't understand how much goes into trying to provide your child with human milk,” Jackee Haak, a lactation care provider who is on the board of directors for the United States Lactation Consultant Association, told BuzzFeed News.
Although breastfeeding is considered the healthiest option for babies, we live in a society famously unsupportive of the practice. People are shamed for doing it in public, and maternity leave — essential for establishing the ability to breastfeed — is often relatively short or nonexistent in the US.
If breastfeeding isn’t an option, infant formula is considered a safe and effective way to feed babies — when it’s available.
Why is there a formula shortage?
According to product data company Datasembly, baby formula supplies started to dwindle around November last year; out-of-stock rates jumped from 11% to 31% by early April. Some states, including Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, and Montana, have an out-of-stock rate above 40%.
The company blames inflation, supply chain shortages, and product recalls for the infant formula shortage, which it expects to worsen with time.
The latest recall occurred in February, when the FDA warned parents against using Similac, Alimentum, and EleCare powdered infant formula products produced by Abbott Nutrition, one of the largest global baby formula producers.
Four babies were hospitalized with bacterial infections in Minnesota, Ohio, and Texas between September and January after consuming the products, which were produced in a facility in Sturgis, Michigan. Health officials said the products may have caused the deaths of two of the infants.
“We recognize that many consumers have been unable to access infant formula and critical medical foods they are accustomed to using and are frustrated by their inability to do so,” FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said in a statement posted Tuesday. “Our teams have been working tirelessly to address and alleviate supply issues and will continue doing everything within our authority to ensure the production of safe infant formula products.”
The FDA noted that the pandemic was behind some of the strains on supply chains before the recalls, and that other infant formula producers “are meeting or exceeding capacity levels … Notably, more infant formula was purchased in the month of April than in the month prior to the recall.”
Parents are turning to social media
In the meantime, parents are using social media to bring more attention to the issue, except they’re also being inundated with negative comments.
Some people don’t understand why parents are worrying about the shortage because “that’s what the boobies are for.” One called lactation “Gods solution.” Then there are those who say some parents just aren’t prioritizing “the best nutrition breast milk” or are making excuses to avoid it — “does this mean we have a breast shortage too,” one person tweeted.
Misleading and hurtful comments on social media “just boils down to parent shaming in general,” Haak said. “I don't think that we can judge people for wherever they're at. It does not make sense.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents exclusively breastfeed infants for the first six months and then introduce “complementary” foods for a year or longer alongside breastfeeding if they or the infant chooses.
Yet, only about 26% of babies born in 2018 were breastfed exclusively through six months, according to the CDC, and about 60% of mothers don’t breastfeed for as long as they want to. Parents of color and those who are younger are also less likely to ever breastfeed their babies.
A number of issues could be at play, Haak told us, and many factors are outside parents’ control. A person may have a medical condition that inhibits their ability to produce milk, like polycystic ovary syndrome; an injury to their chest; or a condition that requires medications or treatments like chemotherapy that may be incompatible with lactation. Sexual trauma may also make it difficult to breastfeed, and not all infant caretakers have given birth.
“It’s a whole systemic thing, too,” Haak said. Workplaces often don’t offer adequate parental leave or breaks during work that would give them the necessary and critical time to develop proper latching techniques with their babies and for their bodies to produce milk.
“It’s actually pretty challenging [to lactate] right away,” Haak said. “If parents don't have enough time to work on it, then they might not have time to get it established.”
The same thinking applies to parents who initially decided not to breastfeed but are now reconsidering months down the line because of the formula shortage. Some parents may not be able to produce enough or any milk after so much time, Haak said.
Certain mishaps can occur during lactation that may force a parent to stop breastfeeding. One Twitter user said they got a clogged milk duct in their nipple that turned into an abscess that had to be surgically removed. Another wrote that they developed mastitis, which is inflammation of the breast tissue that can lead to infection, and came down with a 103-degree fever for two days.
There’s also a lack of family support, issues with latching, concerns about infant nutrition and weight, and financial restraints that may prevent a parent from being able to afford supplies like breast pumps.
If you are currently breastfeeding and want to learn how to increase your supply of milk or start lactating again amid the infant formula shortage, Haak recommends you call a local lactation care provider who can teach you how to accomplish your feeding goals.
Social media can also be a positive space (believe it or not) where you may find other parents who are willing to ship you the specific formula you may need if their stores have it in stock.
Still, the FDA advises against diluting infant formula, buying potentially counterfeit formula online from outside the US, and making or feeding your baby homemade formula because it may lack vital nutrients.