Amid formula shortage, renewed interest in breastfeeding, donor milk

·4 min read

Jul. 8—ANDERSON — As parents of newborns continue scrambling to find formula and U.S. suppliers grapple with factory shutdowns and other supply chain issues, health care officials are seeing a renewed interest in the most natural nursing alternative: breastfeeding.

The ongoing formula shortage, which began in February after a Food and Drug Administration inspection found contamination at a Michigan plant owned by Abbott Laboratories, the country's largest formula producer, is prompting many mothers to take a second look at breastfeeding.

"I am hearing more and more concerns about moms worrying if they will have enough to feed their babies," said Jennifer Carpenter, a lactation consultant at Ascension St. Vincent Hospital in Anderson.

"They don't want to have to supplement because they are worried about being able to find formula to supplement with, so more and more of them are telling me that they want to make sure that they have enough milk to feed their babies and be able to avoid having to search for formula."

Both Ascension St. Vincent and Community Hospital Anderson host support groups in informal, come-and-go sessions weekly that are designed in part to encourage breastfeeding mothers and offer tips for increasing their supply.

"Our bodies do such an amazing job of providing for our babies, and we are here to help families understand that and have exceptional breastfeeding experiences," said Elizabeth Arnett, lactation services coordinator at Community Hospital.

"They are then able to make the best-educated decision about their baby's feeding choice and will in turn be supported in that choice."

Concerns about potential scarcities in non-formula options are sending increasing numbers of women to donor milk banks, which are reporting significant increases in demand as the formula shortage continues.

The Human Milk Bank Association of North America has accredited 31 milk banks across the country, including The Milk Bank in Indianapolis, which receives donations of surplus breast milk from healthy lactating women. Donors are screened and blood tested before they can contribute, and their milk is pasteurized and tested for communicable diseases before it's distributed to those who need it.

Officials at The Milk Bank said they normally hear from about 200 potential donors a month, but in May, that number swelled to nearly 500.

"We'll need to keep those numbers high to meet the demands," said Jenna Streit, advancement director at The Milk Bank. "Not only are we helping families during the shortage, but we also have to maintain donor milk for babies in the NICU. It's a continuous need that is truly never-ending."

The decision to seek donor milk is one that should be researched carefully, she added. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the FDA discourage the practice of seeking milk online or through other informal channels because, without established protocols for screening, contaminants such as bacteria, viruses, medication or other substances can go undetected.

One silver lining to the shortage has been the increasing numbers of women who have donated excess breast milk, according to Streit. Many of them, she said, have donated out of an understanding of the bond nursing mothers share.

"It kind of shakes you to your core, thinking that people are literally trying to find milk or some substance for their kid, and I can't imagine being in that situation," said Katie Lawson, an associate professor of psychological science at Ball State University who has donated to The Milk Bank since her daughter, Skylar Durall, was born in 2018.

"I know there are a whole lot of benefits to breastfeeding, but at the same time there are a lot of barriers for women to breastfeed. It's important that we have this food coming from multiple sources, not just from formula, so that we can make sure all babies are taken care of."

While prospects for the formula shortage easing in the coming weeks remain uncertain, new mothers can turn to several sources, beyond local hospitals, for help.

"Our main concern is for the health and safety of all babies," Arnett said. "Regardless of feeding choice, families deserve to have the reassurance that nutrition will be available for all members of their family, including their little ones."

Follow Andy Knight on Twitter @Andrew_J_Knight, or call 765-640-4809.