OPINION: Shamed if we do, or don’t, breastfeed

The current infant formula shortage has led to the chastising of women who do not breastfeed. Yet, women who do breastfeed have also been publicly shamed. Pictured are "Lactivists" who gathered in May 2011 in front of Forest Park City Hall to protest a law prohibiting breastfeeding children older than two in public. AJC FILES

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The current infant formula shortage has led to the chastising of women who do not breastfeed. Yet, women who do breastfeed have also been publicly shamed. Pictured are "Lactivists" who gathered in May 2011 in front of Forest Park City Hall to protest a law prohibiting breastfeeding children older than two in public. AJC FILES

In recent weeks, a long-repressed memory popped into my head: an image of me breastfeeding my infant daughter while balancing on the edge of a filthy toilet seat at a gas station somewhere near the Georgia/Florida state line.

At that point in my parenting journey, I had breastfed on a commercial plane and in public parks, but on this road trip someone suggested I would have more “privacy” in the gas station restroom instead of the backseat of the car. I held my breath and tried not to let society’s discomfort with public or semi-public breastfeeding sour the milk.

The memory came to mind when I saw social media responses to the national shortage of infant formula. One comment after another chastised women who feed their babies formula. Feed your baby what your body created for them,” someone seethed.

One of the more high profile commenters was Bette Midler. “Try Breastfeeding! It’s free and available on demand,” wrote the actress. Midler later followed up with another post. “No shame if you can’t breastfeed but if you can and are somehow convinced that your own milk isn’t as good as a ‘scientifically researched product,’ that’s something else again.” And it’s something Midler apparently believes is worthy of shame.

We are shamed if we breastfeed (at least in public) and shamed if we don’t.

The most recent shame game began after complaints regarding sick infants triggered a voluntary recall of powder formulas produced by Abbott Laboratories, one of four companies that control 90% of the U.S. supply of infant formula. The company shut down its manufacturing plant in Sturgis, Michigan. Pathogens, Cronobacter sakazakii and salmonella, had caused illness in four infants, two of whom died. The recall exacerbated the supply of infant formula which had already been decreasing as consumer products were continually impacted by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Frantic parents resorted to panic buying, buying formula from unauthorized dealers, using social media to source inventory of formula or, in extreme cases, watering down formula to make it last. Some attempted to make their own infant formula.

Axios Atlanta reported that more than 40% of Georgia’s expected formula stock was missing from shelves the week of May 1.

After the anticipated reopening of the Michigan facility this week, it will take 6 to 8 weeks for Abbott Laboratories to ramp up production of baby formula. The company has also redirected supplies from a facility in Ireland and prioritized infant formula at its facility in Columbus, Ohio.

President Biden launched Operation Fly Formula authorizing commercial air cargo carriers to pick up overseas infant formula that meets U.S. health and safety standards.

Yet, parents are still stressed about how to feed their children. One thing they don’t need, is a side of shame to go with it.

In a recent editorial for NBC news, Dr. Rebekah Diamond, assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University, detailed her own internalized stigma against formula when she had to combine breast and formula feeding.

“Even as a physician, a part of me had been convinced that formula was the enemy,” Diamond wrote. “More often than not, introducing some amount of formula is the only way to keep infants healthy and happy enough so they can learn how to breastfeed.”

Like Dr. Diamond, I was fully committed to breastfeeding, but in the first few weeks I needed help. While I pumped around the clock to establish a more robust milk supply and my daughter had corrective surgery for tongue-tie to help her latch, supplementing with formula kept her alive.

There are so many reasons why women do not to breastfeed or why they feed their child a combination of breast milk and formula milk. Medical issues such as polycystic ovary syndrome or prior breast surgery may prevent a woman from producing enough breast milk. Women may also take certain medications or need medical treatments that aren’t compatible with breastfeeding. If an infant is born to a non-biological family, breastfeeding is not an option. On the flip side, some babies have medical conditions that prevent them from tolerating breast milk.

Then there are all the issues that have nothing to do with medical conditions but are still equally valid in a woman’s decision not to breastfeed such as limited access to healthcare, paid family leave and public support for lactating mothers.

It is exasperating that shame is the default response to any choice a woman can make about how best to feed her baby.

The infant formula shortage is a complex failure of multiple systems, but not a failure of moms.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.