Stop Telling People To 'Just Breastfeed' When They Can't Find Formula

As families face an acute baby formula shortage, they are met with online advice that is not helpful or accurate.

Close-Up Mother Feeding Baby Milk With Bottle
Photo: Getty

There is an extremely worrying baby formula shortage in this country. It is so bad that many thousands of families have hungry babies, crying out with empty bellies while politicians wring their hands and talking heads on TV point blaming fingers. We can count statistics, set timetables, and change policies all the livelong day to prevent this from happening again, but in the meantime, we have real babies who are in danger because of how complicated and fragile the supply chain situation is.

And throughout all of this, you know what is super duper not helpful? All the insufferable armchair experts online telling these worried families that they should just breastfeed their babies.

How We Got Here

How we landed in a situation where families are unable to find baby formula is largely due to a perfect storm of circumstances. During the lockdown phases of the early months of the pandemic, many families stocked up on formula as well as toilet paper and other essentials. There was a grave fear that we'd run out of supplies, so parents did what they thought was necessary. Unfortunately, that hoarding led to actual shortages because when the U.S. supply got over-purchased, it meant that there was an immediate dip in sales since folks were spending months going through their supplies and not buying them at the stores. That led to companies making less of the product and voilà; shortages.

But a few months ago, there was a harmful bacteria that got in the baby formula supply, and it led to babies dying. And since three corporations largely run the baby formula industry, that led to a massive recall without market competition to pick up the slack, which impacted an already stunted formula stock.

Social Media Thinks You Should Just Breastfeed

The sluggish ability of the U.S. baby formula market to correct itself and help families is already devilishly frustrating, but what adds insult to injury is the ignorant chorus online telling families that they can quit complaining already because breastfeeding is free.

Bette Midler took to Twitter to let every parent know to "TRY BREASTFEEEDING! It's free and available on-demand." And she's not the only one. Plenty of people—notably cisgender men—have chimed in online to screech loud enough for us imbecile parents in the back to report that our breasts are an obvious answer to a problem that is out of our hands. But please also explain how single dads and gay dads are supposed to feed their babies without breasts or chests that produce milk?

Here's the thing: Breastfeeding is not "on-demand," nor is it "free."

The idea that breastfeeding is as simple as flipping a switch is offensive and deeply hurtful. Here are many valid reasons why a parent may not be able to breastfeed or chestfeed:

  • Hypoplastic breasts (which is when there is insufficient glandular tissue to support lactation)
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Infection
  • Medication that could impact milk supply
  • Excessive breast pain from nursing
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Having experienced a mastectomy, breast reduction, or other breast surgery
  • Not having breasts
  • Not having the ability to lactate
  • Choosing not to breastfeed
  • Radiation therapy for breast cancer
  • Insufficient milk supply

There are a million reasons why any parent may not be able to "just breastfeed," and calling breastfeeding natural and "the way God intended" doesn't help parents who are simply trying to feed their kids. And yet Facebook and Twitter are chock-full of people chucking their two cents at anxious and desperate parents who didn't ask for the unsolicited ignorance.

For parents who could use some good news, the FDA has stated that help is on the way. "We recognize that many consumers have been unable to access infant formula and critical medical foods they are accustomed to using and are frustrated by their inability to do so. We are doing everything in our power to ensure there is adequate product available where and when they need it," FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, M.D. wrote in a press release on Tuesday.

Parents spoke with the White House this week and learned that President Biden met with manufacturers and retailers to discuss urgent solutions. While there is no end date to this messy formula shortage in the immediate future, there is hope that once one of the main factories reopens after its shut down due to a recall, production can quickly catch up.

The best thing we can do as a nation is to support our families with babies by treating them with compassion and respect. After years of breastfeeding and shaming parents, it's a bit ironic that the same people who call public breastfeeding a form of pornography are the same people who will tell a parent to simply breastfeed with no regard for the realities of breastfeeding, health, or a family's situation.

Please continue to learn more about the baby formula shortage, including how to ration your supply, and which alternatives are not safe for your baby.

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