Breastfeeding Amidst A Formula Shortage

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I gave birth to my first child in February 2020, two weeks before the world shut down. Even before being stuck at home with my new baby, I knew I wanted to try to breastfeed. My first time around came with many challenges that I may write another post about one day. However, I breastfed for almost eight months. Fast forward to my second child, born in June 2022. Again, I knew I wanted to try breastfeeding. However, given the national formula shortage, I also felt I had no choice. I saw the empty shelves with my own eyes in every store. I saw social media groups popping up to help people find formula. I heard stories of friends and in-laws shipping formula from across the country to help their loved ones. It was scary.

How did we get to that point? The formula shortage stems from a production halt at a large manufacturing plant. Production was stopped due to bacterial contamination in a formula that led to the probable death of multiple infants. After many months of closure, the facility resumed formula production only to be shut down again due to flooding and storms. The government did step in and secure formula from other countries. This was a set allocation and temporary. Formula supply is improving but continues to be in short supply, especially if your baby requires certain brands. It continues to be scary, given there is not a definite resolution or timeline.

I am lucky my journey allowed me to breastfeed again. Throughout my maternity leave, I slowly built my freezer stash of milk. I returned to work and soon started planning my first work trip. Travel without my baby is the main reason I stopped breastfeeding my first child. I was faced with that choice again. On top of the formula shortage, we are facing one of the worst influenza and RSV seasons on record. I was back to feeling that I did not have a choice. I put aside my anxiety about maintaining my supply, finding places to pump, maintaining discretion, storing my breastmilk, finding the time to pump, and everything else my brain thought of to remind me why I wanted to end my journey again. I spent five days away from my baby on my first trip and another three days for my next trip. I pumped in airport bathrooms, in the airplane bathroom, in my rental car, in my hotel room, and empty conference rooms. I found a hotel with a full refrigerator and freezer. I packed frozen breastmilk with ice packs in a soft-sided cooler inside my checked bag.

The TSA does allow you to bring breastmilk on an airplane, but everything I read stated “a reasonable amount.” I’m not sure they would have considered my close to 150 ounces a “reasonable amount.” I had many conversations with both men and women I was working with to say, “I need to leave this meeting for 20 minutes to pump,” or “do you know where I can go pump privately?” For the most part, this was well-received, and I was given accommodations. I did get the typical “how long are you going to do that for?” type of questions. I did not know how to answer that then, and I still don’t know how to answer it. If you would have asked me three months ago, I thought I would have already been done. In three days, I leave for another four days away from my baby. I am not looking forward to the anxiety around traveling again, but my anxiety about the formula shortage and cold season wins out.

The complexity of emotions when deciding to breastfeed, formula feed, or combination feed is difficult to navigate. There is no one right answer, but one thing we all can agree on is the lack of support for breastfeeding mothers. I don’t have the answer on how we improve this, but stopping the judgment for what a mother decides is the first step. Let’s stop asking mothers if they are formula feeding, nursing, bottle feeding breastmilk (pumping is breastfeeding! Again, another topic for another post) and start asking how we can best support moms in all stages of mothering.

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