EDITORIAL: Breastfeeding no answer to baby formula shortage

·3 min read

May 23—Breastfeeding without question is the ideal way to feed a baby. It's also hard.

Here's some of what comes with breastfeeding: engorged, painful breasts; sore, cracked nipples; exhaustion from feeding every two or three hours; panic and frustration when there's not enough milk and an inconsolable infant shrieks into the wee hours of the night; and even worse, intense feelings of inadequacy if the struggles continue, or it's just too much.

As baby formula becomes increasingly scarce in the wake of the February closure of the Abbott Laboratories plant in Michigan, people have taken to social media to question, "why not just breastfeed?" Perhaps the most high-profile example is singer/actress Bette Midler.

"TRY BREASTFEEDING," she wrote in a Tweet that went viral. "It's free and available on demand."

That's ridiculous, not to mention a complete diminishment of the value of women's time. Breastfeeding is work, so Midler's Tweet begs the question: Does she work for free? Of course not. One doesn't become worth $250 million by giving away her time.

Midler's directive aside, the widespread advice on how to feed a baby when formula is scarce pokes at a broader issue: the pressure on women — all women — to breastfeed. It's a societal flaw that leads to women who can't, or choose not to, feeling like bad mothers. Studies show such feelings lead to mental health issues such as extreme anxiety and depression.

Breastfeeding has come in and out of fashion in the past century. Manufacturers began developing formulas in the early 20th century, advertising directly to doctors, according to an overview of infant feeding published in The Journal of Perinatal Education. Several years later, in 1937, The New York Times interviewed a pediatrician in Brooklyn who said out of 400 newborns he encountered in the past year, only two were exclusively breastfed.

"About half of these mothers attempted breastfeeding on my urgent advice at first, but most of them quit," he told the newspaper. "They had heard that babies did as well on cow's milk nowadays and did not want to overeat, gain weight or lose their girlish figures."

In 1947, The American Academy of Pediatrics advised mothers to have a "positive attitude" (be happy) or risk failing. Given the propensity for postpartum depression and the results of sleep deprivation, this is an absurd directive.

By the 1970s breastfeeding became widely accepted, with about two-fifths of moms doing so. And in the 1990s, the World Health Organization launched its "Breast is Best" campaign — urging exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months.

Today, WHO recommends mothers begin breastfeeding within the first hour of birth and continue to do so exclusively for six months. Then, while introducing solid food they should continue to breastfeed until the child is age 2 or older. The American Academy of Pediatrics has similar recommendations, with the cutoff a year earlier at age 1.

That's a very long time. And while 56.7% of mothers continue breastfeeding for at least six months, only one in four exclusively breastfeed at the time. There are many good reasons for this, but that doesn't stop the judging.

"In 2015, when I gave birth to an eight-pound boy, I was strenuously encouraged by doctors, nurses and the books and articles I read to breastfeed. Sometimes that encouragement bordered on bullying," Elizabeth Spiers wrote in a May 18 New York Times column about the backlash she faced when she stopped breastfeeding at seven weeks after a serious medical scare.

"These evangelists for breastfeeding were very often women who had flexible schedules or long maternity leaves or did not have to work — the same mothers who shared recipes for organic baby purées and railed against the dangers of cheap supermarket food," she said.

Breastfeeding is not the answer to the baby formula shortage. It's time to stop shaming women for their methods of feeding their children. And it's time for the misguided zealots on social media and elsewhere to move on.