Working with babies and new mothers has been one of the greatest privileges of my life, and I have had a lot of preconceived notions about motherhood shattered in the course of this work. The hardest pill to swallow was the fact that breastfeeding is TOUGH. Ask any new mother attempting the journey and you’ll see a few tears and hear a few mutters about cracked nipples. While breastmilk is still the most complete and perfect source of nutrition for an infant, many of the issues that would require a wet nurse in days gone, can now be solved in the form of powdered formula.
The first infant formula to hit the market was developed by chemist Justus von Liebig in 1865 and consisted of powdered cow’s milk, wheat and malt flour, and potassium bicarbonate. While this formula was fattening, the many deficiencies of children who were formula fed led to the fortification of the formulas with missing nutrients such as protein, B vitamins, and minerals like iron. These fortifications (now required by the FDA) make formula appear nutritionally identical to breastmilk. However, medical research shows increasing trends of atopy, diabetes, and childhood obesity in formula-fed children. Mankind has yet to produce a single supplement that can effectively and accurately replace food.
That being said, I have encountered a number of women in my line of work who, for various reasons, cannot breastfeed. My policy in those situations has always been that a fed baby is best. Quality formula has been a lifesaver in many unforeseeable circumstances. Women have been supplementing breastfeeding at least since 2000 BC (earliest recorded use of animal’s milk to feed an infant), and we are lucky enough to live in an age where we can safely and effectively rely on breastmilk alternatives to nourish the upcoming generations… if we can get our hands on formula.
Now, I personally have a number of theories on the whys and why nots of the current formula shortage (New World Order and the erosion of the family unit being the foremost among them), but we won’t go down that rabbit hole just yet. What is easily traceable fact is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) means that the United States Federal Government subsidizes formula companies via various voucher programs. In fact, over 50% of formula used in the US is provided for by the government. The largest companies that can afford the most lobbyists and government favors dominate the market. In simplest terms, a few, large companies dominating the market means that it is largely reliant on the supply of these few companies. Lockdowns, inflation, and a product recall from one of those few companies have all contributed to the shortage we’re facing today.
Many of the mothers I work with have always ordered formula from countries like the Netherlands that use better quality dairy in their infant formulas. However, the domestic shortage has placed an increased demand on these foreign providers, and basic economics tells us prices will go up. One of my clients just paid a whopping $847.97 for twelve boxes of Holle brand formula. For a lot of American families, that sum is not even close to being a feasible option.
What is an option? Community.
I had a client about 3 years ago whose 2-week-old baby came down with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). He spent the entirety of his third week of life in the hospital hooked up to various machines. Every physician and nurse that cared for him during that time worked to convince the mother to breastfeed (she hadn’t been since bringing him home from the hospital). “One drop of breastmilk will provide him with more nutrition and antibodies than an entire bottle of formula can,” said one lactation nurse assisting us. The mother, being the extraordinary woman that she is, faced down every obstacle put in front of her to make sure her son got the breastmilk he needed to recover. I watched her spend hours a day pumping or trying to get the baby (traumatized about having things near his face after the hospital) to latch. There were gallons of frozen breastmilk in both the family’s freezers. One day, while defrosting a few ounces, a horrible smell permeated the kitchen. The entire stache of milk that the mother had so painstakingly built up had a particular bacteria in it that caused any unpasteurized milk to oxidize and go rancid when exposed to air. I had never seen someone look so defeated.
Luckily, a close friend had also recently given birth and had plenty of breastmilk to spare. She would come by the house with boxes of frozen packs. The funny thing was that she wasn’t even the only one to offer!
I’ve thought about that situation a lot as the baby formula shortage has only gotten more pressing.
One of the worst side effects of today’s dichotomous political climate, is that it has set people against their neighbors instead of with them. Feeding a baby alone with people actively rooting for you to fail is likely the most difficult part of this shortage. This is why it is so important to build communities with environments of open discussion where we can learn that we have more in common with each other than not. When that kind of community is present, and a mother is struggling to feed her baby, ten other women are there with boxes to help. Maybe I’m too idealistic, but I truly believe that a friend will show up for you far more than a fed will.