Amidst a Nationwide Formula Shortage, a Reminder: The Decision To Breastfeed Is Personal

The U.S formula shortage is prompting bad-faith—but unsurprising—judgment of mothers who cannot or do not breastfeed, callously calling on them to “embrace your womanhood.”

Katie Wussler, a program coordinator at Mother & Child Education Center, checks the lot number on a donated can of Similac baby formula against a list of recalled cans on May 12, 2022, in Portland, Oregon. More than 60 percent of Mother & Childs formula supply was affected by the recall. (Nathan Howard / Getty Images)

Parents of infants are facing a terrifying crisis—the possibility that they will be unable to feed their babies due to a nationwide formula shortage. At the end of April, stores were out of 40 percent of the most popular formula brands, up from 31 percent two weeks prior. Given that in their first year children get the majority of their nutrients from formula or breast milk, parents of infants are understandably panicked. 

And as the shortage gained more news coverage, social media outlets like Twitter started buzzing—not with compassion for these scared parents, but rather judgment that these mothers hadn’t breastfed and were therefore at fault for their current predicament.

“Mother’s milk is free…”

“Why do you need formula? Where is mom? Ever hear of mother’s milk?”

“#breastisbest stop whining about formula shortage.”

“The nightmare of the formula? Not necessary. This is targeting.  Breast feed! And ladies, there is WET NURSING.  Where breast milk and food can be produced by surrogates.  We are powerful.”

“When did become woke and feminist to give your babies poisonous formula instead of breastfeeding them? ‘God only gave us boobs to be hot for men’ is not the feminism you think it is, embrace your womanhood and nurture your children.”

“If a woman can’t commit at least one year to breast feeding, she should not have kids.”

At first, I was shocked by this callous response—but how could I have been when it is so typical? Stay-at-home mothers are judged for not working; working mothers are judged for not staying home. A friend of mine once got a note in her son’s lunchbox from the teacher letting her know that the lunch she provided was not nutritious enough. Any heterosexual mother whose child has screamed on a plane can tell you that the glares are reserved for her, not the child’s father. 

And this judgment is reserved not only for minor differences in perspective but also for the impacts of structural failings, particularly for low-income and minority mothers. The cost of childcare is exorbitant, yet we criminalize mothers when they are forced to leave their children alone to work. Children are taken from their parents by the child welfare system because they have unstable housing or because their mothers were unable to provide sufficient food.

And of course, the decision to breastfeed like any other decision involving one’s own body and how to raise one’s children is highly personal—or may not be a choice at all. Mothers may use formula because they found breastfeeding difficult or painful, because of chronic infections, because their babies were unable to correctly latch, because their milk supply was too low, because their employment made it impossible—or because they simply made a choice that breastfeeding was not something that they wanted to do.

When women explain that breastfeeding was difficult for these reasons, often the response is that now women can “just pump.” To them I offer my own story.

I was determined to breastfeed and did so for the first 48 hours after my son was born. Despite consistently breastfeeding, my newborn lost an alarming amount of weight, signaling that he was not actually getting enough milk. The nurses gave me formula to supplement the breastmilk and I continued to try a combination of breastfeeding, pumping and formula, all while in severe pain from a fresh C-section incision. In addition to my low milk production, my son did not latch well, making the process unpleasant for both of us. I had the ability to hire a lactation consultant who was featured in the New York Times for one session costing $400 and still could not manage to successfully breastfeed. 

Mothers may use formula because they found breastfeeding difficult or painful, because of chronic infections, because their babies were unable to correctly latch, because their milk supply was too low, because their employment made it impossible—or because they simply made a choice breastfeeding was not something they wanted to do.

My first weeks as a new mother, the time that I’d been looking forward to for years, made for the most stressful and depressing weeks of my life. I couldn’t even feed my child the way that I was “supposed to.” I was exhausted from caring for a newborn, pumping in addition to breastfeeding and I still had to supplement with formula to give my son enough nutrition. 

In consultation with my baby’s pediatrician, and for my own mental health, I made the decision to exclusively pump, which meant pumping six to seven times a day. I pumped in cars, airplanes, restaurant bathrooms and sometimes on park benches with a cloth over me in 100-degree weather. I had to carry a pump and bottles around with me constantly, in addition to the many things one needs to care for a baby. I was also only able to maintain this schedule because I was in the fortunate position of having a hands-on partner, great health insurance that provided my pump for free, 14 weeks of paid leave and a generally upper middle-class existence.

Despite the high cost of formula, many low-income women do not breastfeed because we live in a country that still does not provide paid maternal leave.

I don’t share my story for sympathy; I offer it for context. At the time that I had my first baby, I represented many women who were accused of being “bad mothers” by the child welfare system. The majority of these women were doing their best with the most limited of means. I will never forget my supervisor coming to my home to meet my new baby and talking about how hard it is to be a new mother, even with access to luxuries like two-day shipping, in comparison to our clients who were Brooklyn’s most impoverished residents.

For many of the women that I represented, breastfeeding was impossible because of their economic circumstances. Despite the high cost of formula, many low-income women do not breastfeed because we live in a country that still does not provide paid maternity leave. Few can afford the time (literally and figuratively) that it takes to breastfeed or “just pump” to feed an infant—a full-time job on its own. How could a woman who works overnight cleaning buildings exclusively breastfeed? Or a woman who works long shifts in the food service industry? Low-income communities also lack formal and informal supports for breastfeeding.

And the irony of the formula shortage happening at the same time that the Supreme Court is poised to force American women to carry unwanted pregnancies is not lost on many. Much has been written about how abortion restrictions will impact those already most marginalized. Many elected officials have made it clear their willingness to force people to parent, and yet simultaneously provide little to no support—despite all the rhetoric about children being the future of our democracy. 

I hope that there is a quick resolution to the immediate crisis so that all of the parents who are worried about where they will find formula don’t have to live in fear of being able to feed their children. But I also hope this crisis engenders empathy for the many parents who were already facing the unenviable position of being unable to feed their babies. The only thing sadder than seeing empty shelves where formula is supposed to be, is seeing formula locked up because people have to steal to feed their children.

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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Shanta Trivedi is an assistant professor of law and faculty director of the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) at the University of Baltimore School of Law. She previously represented parents in Brooklyn who are embroiled in the child welfare system and as a result of that experience writes about state-sanctioned family separation focusing on issues related to race, poverty and gender.