Yuen: If you really want more babies to be breastfed, here’s what you can do

·5 min read

File Bette Midler's opinions on the baby formula shortage under "Not Helpful."

The celebrity stepped into it when she tweeted in response to the national crisis, "TRY BREASTFEEEDING! It's free and available on demand."

It was as if Midler were suggesting that parents who were panic-stricken by empty store shelves and the thought of their infants starving could simply turn on the dried-up taps to the breastmilk apparatus, and voila! — instant, nutritious infant meals ready for infinite consumption. Calamity foiled.

"If you're already in the position of formula feeding your baby, you can't just say, 'Tomorrow I'm going to breastfeed my baby,'" said Anna Hepsø, director of nursing at the Minnesota Birth Center. "But I do think it's an opportunity for us as a society to take a step back and look at what all we're doing to help people meet their breastfeeding goals, and what more we could be doing."

The Biden administration recently invoked the Defense Production Act, requiring the suppliers of the raw ingredients to give first priority to formula manufacturers. Still, it could be several weeks before the nation's supply returns to normal, which means harried parents will still be scrambling to track down cans.

We need to remain focused on how a modern and wealthy nation like ours could fall so short of, like, the most important thing in the world: safely and adequately feeding our babies. Just a handful of companies control the formula industry, and the U.S. market historically has been closed off to imports. One might argue this crisis was several decades in the making, starting with the aggressive campaigns by formula companies targeting new parents, including Black moms, as a higher-class alternative to nursing.

We should also ask how could we, as a culture and a community, help parents who desire to breastfeed — without shaming or judging those who choose not to or simply can't.

Although 84% of infants start breastfeeding, only 58% are breastfeeding at six months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breastmilk is the best source of nutrition for infants, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends they be exclusively breastfed for about the first 6 months. We tell guilt-ridden moms that "breast is best," but often fail to give them the support they need to make breastfeeding a reality.

"I try to emphasize that these low rates are a reflection on our society" and that breastfeeding is undervalued at every level, Hepsø said. "When parents don't succeed at meeting their breastfeeding goal, it's truly not their fault."

I reached out to Hepsø, who has received the highest level of certification for her work as a lactation consultant, because she's seen a surge in demand for her breastfeeding-education classes. The birth center used to offer them just a few times a year, and now the classes are held every six weeks.

With the formula nightmare still underway, expecting parents might be anxious about how to better position themselves for a successful breastfeeding journey. Hepsø recommends that the breastfeeding parent — and their partner — educate themselves before the birth about how breastfeeding works. Then it will be easier to troubleshoot challenges when they arise, she said.

One big hurdle to nursing immediately after the birth is nipple pain, Hepsø said. Another is what is known in some circles as "baby's second night syndrome," in which after a newborn's first angelic 24 hours, they caterwaul incessantly, perhaps disturbed by the fact that they are no longer in the womb.

"You put them on the breast, and they freak out at you, they're clawing at you," Hepsø said. "I think the most common time to introduce formula is that second night because your baby seems really hungry."

Some moms blame themselves for not producing enough colostrum, the first milk their body produces. But Hepsø said the amount of milk babies need so soon after birth is proportionate to the size of their miniature stomachs. "When babies are born, they're only meant to get drops of milk at a time at each feed," she said.

If your partner is breastfeeding a newborn, Hepsø says, here's how you can help: Get up at night when the baby cries. Let your partner nurse the child, but show your support by managing any painkiller medications for your partner, responding to texts and e-mails from well-wishers, or even offering your partner a bag of Doritos at 2 a.m.

"I know in some ways that feels like a waste because now both of you are losing sleep," Hepsø said. "But getting up to do a diaper change, assist with the latch, and then falling back to sleep for at least the first couple of weeks until we've got breastfeeding well-established, I do think that does feel so supportive ... in that misery loves company."

Of course, while breastfeeding might seem like an intimate and personal choice, it's compounded by the lack of societal supports. The United States remains the only industrialized country that does not mandate paid family leave. Many parents give up breastfeeding because they must return to jobs that do not support multiple pumping sessions a day.

Black women, especially those in low-income jobs, return to work earlier and are more likely to experience inflexible work schedules, according to the CDC. Those factors help explain the racial disparities in breastfeeding.

If you're a nursing parent going back to work, know your rights. Federal law requires most employers to provide "reasonable" break time for pumping breastmilk. Last year, Minnesota legislators from both sides of the aisle approved a measure mandating that those breaks be paid, making our state the third in the nation to pass such a law.

Finally, if breastmilk isn't in the cards for your baby, don't beat yourself up. Formula is meeting your child's nutritional needs. Hepsø screens for anxiety and depression during lactation visits. Breastfeeding challenges can feel so overwhelming, particularly without the proper support, that it may not be worth it if moms are suffering emotionally, she said.

"It's helpful to talk about the importance of the parent's mental health," Hepsø said. "Yes, breastmilk is great for your baby, but more important for your baby than breastmilk is you."