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Is breastfeeding ‘free’? Baby formula shortage spotlights myths about feeding babies

The ongoing crisis is raising questions about the true price of breastfeeding.
/ Source: TODAY

The baby formula shortage is a health emergency for parents who use it, either exclusively or supplementally. It's also brought into question whether breast milk is somehow a "free" or easy alternative. 

"The 'breastfeeding is free' narrative circulating as the country faces a devastating formula shortage is ignorant and exclusive of all the mommies who are unable to breastfeed for a multitude of reasons," tweeted New Jersey physician Nicole Saphier. "This is a crisis and needs to be addressed ASAP."

The formula shortage has worsened in recent weeks, with inflation, supply chain shortages and product recalls being blamed for the crisis. Contamination is another factor; retailers like Walgreens and CVS limited the amount of formula customers can purchase after a U.S. Food & Drug Administration investigation found the presence of pathogens at baby formula plant Abbott Nutrition in Sturgis, Michigan.

Against this backdrop, panicked mothers are being told on social media to start breastfeeding, as if on cue.

"How about you do what many women have been doing for thousands of years?" someone suggested on TikTok. "Find a mother that is breastfeeding that will donate breast milk or nurse your baby ... People are acting like there's no way to fix this ... Formula is supposed to be a last resort type thing. If you're physically able, you should and people that cannot can have the formula for their babies."

"There wouldn't be a formula shortage if only babies who truly needed it had access," another TikTok user asserted. "There is no reason for USA's low breastfeeding rates other than a lack of education & support."

"It’s called breastfeeding. We are MOTHERS. Breast IS best," said yet another.

Related story: Desperate parents beg breast milk banks for help amid baby formula shortage

However, breastfeeding and breast milk aren't really free. Nursing moms often must hire lactation consultants, and they also may require expensive specialized diets, nursing pillows, shields and other gear.

“Breastfeeding or breast milk isn’t something you can always just initiate,” Rebecca Ashbeck, nurse manager of the Mother/Baby Unit at Mayo Clinic, tells TODAY Parents. And moms with breast infections like mastitis, mastectomies or polycystic ovary syndrome (which can slow milk production) are not always able to breastfeed.

Ashbeck adds that breastfeeding can be harder for moms with older children. “It would be difficult to get back to that postpartum supply," she explains.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, relactation — the process of reestablishing lactation after having stopped for weeks or months — is a "time-consuming process." Parents should "set realistic expectations for relactation based on their individual circumstances," the CDC advises.

Mental health and breastfeeding are connected as well. Former doula Erica Chidi, the co-founder of LOOM, a sexual and reproductive health educational platform, tells TODAY Parents that women who have experienced sexual trauma or who are grieving might have trouble initiating or sustaining nursing.

"Emotional components play into successful breastfeeding," Chidi notes.

Related story: Everything you need to know about the baby formula shortage

Nursing is also expensive for working moms who do not have paid leave or gaps in their workdays to pump breast milk, says Lindsay Powers, a New York mom of two and author of "You Can’t F*ck Up Your Kids: A Judgment-Free Guide to Stress-Free Parenting."

“Working moms who pump need time to step away from work a couple times a day, find a quiet and private place to pump, more time to clean all the equipment, a good cooler bag for transportation and a short enough commute to prevent the milk from spoiling," Powers tells TODAY Parents.

"When I pumped at work, it took up a ton of mental energy," she recalls. "I disappeared for 30 minutes twice a day into a small room used by multiple moms, where I’d lock the door, take off my dress, pray nobody would walk in on me and then pump and clean all the parts. This also meant I usually had to work more later at night to make up for the lost pumping time." 

Ashbeck points out that having a supportive family is a big part of the breastfeeding journey. "It's not the right answer for every mom."

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