Saturday, June 25, 2022
June 25, 2022

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Allen: Upshot of baby formula crisis

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It was probably inevitable that the baby formula shortage would devolve into a noxious quarrel between the breastfeeding and formula-feeding camps.

Within days of the crisis finally hitting the mainstream news cycle, social media feeds were filling up with all kinds of thoughtless commentary.

Some iteration of, “Can’t find formula? Try breastfeeding,” was a common refrain. As was: “How about trusting women to do what’s best for them and their babies.”

Turns out that few controversies animate women (and even some men) quite like those that involve judgment over how they are feeding their children. And who can blame them?

The formula shortage is real, and the sense of panic among those who rely on it is palpable.

But the crisis-turned-controversy, with its cacophony of unsolicited opinions, obscures one of the major factors that contributes to our outsize dependence on baby formula: the appalling lack of education and support for mothers in their early postpartum days — especially when it comes to breastfeeding.

“There is a huge push to breastfeed,” says international-board certified lactation consultant Mellanie Sheppard. “But when the rubber hits the road there is no help when there are problems.”

For many women who use formula, the decision to forgo breastfeeding isn’t much of a choice.

When women experience unceasing pain while nursing; when they face uncertainty about nursing while taking certain medications; when babies have problems with latching or are choking on milk while feeding; when there are concerns about milk supply or a baby’s poor weight gain — women get worried, discouraged and frustrated.

They are inundated with poor or incomplete advice, often from trusted pediatricians and OB-GYNs, who are well-intended but too often not equipped to offer adequate support or even suggest helpful resources.

Many women faced with such challenges, Sheppard says, are driven to a “hopeless, helpless place and some just don’t make it through,” nursing even when they would like to discontinue doing so.

My own experience confirms this reality.

I spent 10 weeks sobbing through 8-10 nursings a day, desperately searching for a health care professional who could explain the excruciating pain it caused.

On the verge of quitting, I came upon a breastfeeding resource center at an area hospital. Two nurses immediately identified the lip-and-tongue tie in my daughter that was causing me such discomfort and made me an appointment to get it resolved.

It was a godsend and a hard-won victory. And it made me appreciate why comparatively so few women nurse their babies — even with formula supplementation — for the 12 months recommended by health authorities like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

Indeed, according to the CDC’s most recent Breastfeeding Report Card, 84.1 percent of infants started out breastfeeding in 2017, but only 58.3 percent were breastfeeding at six months of age. By the time they turned 1, barely a third of babies were still being breastfed, even with supplementation.

While there are good and sometimes necessary reasons (including severe food allergies) for mothers to exclusively feed their babies formula, there really isn’t any disagreement over the benefits of nursing.

Human milk helps prime gut health and lowers rates of obesity and diabetes in children. It decreases rates of breast cancer among mothers and improves maternal mental and emotional health.

And because natural immunity is passed from mother to baby, nursing also results in fewer childhood illnesses among breastfed children.

Will the formula shortage spur a change? It should.

Because it’s absolutely true that women should be able to formula-feed their babies without judgment.

But it’s also true that fewer women would be beholden to the whims of the formula market if they got the breastfeeding support they needed.

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