It is hard to know where to begin with what I have learned about formula feeding since April 2021. See that was the month that I launched a local nonprofit into service that supported under-resourced families with newborn essentials, including formula. I became a formula feeding parent myself back in May 2020. I supplemented with formula with my first born all the way back in 2014. So, why did it take a massive disruption in being able to feed the most vulnerable in our community for me to learn about the formula industry in our country? Should I have not already learned about all the facets to formula feeding sooner as a parent?
Where Do I Begin?
In the last year and especially since the formula recall February 2022, I’ve learned more about the terrifying history of formula marketing and how so much hasn’t changed since 1973. How the formula shortage crisis has many root causes. It is in the news now but has been something that every low-income parent has experienced since day one. Our government and the WIC (women, infant, children) program has played a large role in our country’s parents not being able to soothe our babies hunger cries.
I could dive deep into how dangerous homemade formula is and the massive risks with watering down formula to ration it. I could also explore how it takes a scientist to understand the ingredient list and nothing is made navigable for a new parent. In fact, very little of the wording on formula cans is regulated or standardized. And I’d love to scream this one from the mountain tops: Goat’s milk is NOT the solution!
I could get on my soapbox about how the fact that our country does not have maternity leave or paternity leave being a huge contributing factor as to how we got ourselves into a position of where we cannot feed our babies. Or how we have collectively as a nation elected law and policy makers that do not care if a baby starves to death if it cost money to feed them. This, of course, assumes that producers of human milk have no value because they are not compensated monetarily or turn a profit.
But I am not an expert. I haven’t had the title of journalist for almost two decades now. As a nonprofit owner, I am still learning how to be equitable and knowledgeable on how to keep our babies fed. I am a mother. A mother that if this crisis happened a year ago would have a starving baby.
Failure to Latch
My third and last baby was different in every way from my first two pregnancies, births and newborn stages. It was a beautiful birth. But as my brand new son was laid across my chest and I knew to try to see if I could get him to latch soon, I had a gut feeling that this might not work. The nurses were kind and encouraged me to just hold him and rest.
The Overnight Nurse
Every nurse had a different approach. This wasn’t my first time having a newborn. I thought I would know what to do. But every time I tried to nurse my new baby, I just couldn’t get him to latch. The onsite lactation consultant agreed that there was nothing biologically wrong. The overnight nurse was my lifesaver. After the exhaustion of labor, delivery and now a very hungry newborn, I was at a breaking point. She asked if I was OK with giving him a bottle and I cried with relief. “Yes, thank you.” I felt my shoulders and jaw unclench.
I wasn’t informed what type of formula I was giving. It was what the hospital provided – Similac Pro-Advance. A standard formula I know now. But then I just took it and trusted and soothed my baby.
Joining the EP Club
After six weeks of lactation consultant appointments and only getting my newborn to latch if I bait and switched him with a bottle first, I decided that exclusively pumping was how I was going to feed our baby. I received little to no encouragement about embarking on this journey. Now looking back on it, I understand why. Not even my pediatrician’s office had exclusively pumping as a feeding option. It was either breastfed or formula fed, that’s it.
Juggling All the Jobs
Feeding a baby is a full-time job. A baby must eat every 2-3 hours. You can stretch that to every 4 hours after month two or so, but still, it is a around the clock job. In order to produce enough human milk to support my baby and his growth, I needed to pump for 20 minutes, 6 to 8 times a day. I tried multi-tasking, but the physicality of pumping made it nearly impossible. I was working multiple full-time jobs to keep my milk supply up, bottle feeding, diaper changes, caring for my other two children, and managing the home.
Still, I knew I had a privileged life. I didn’t have to worry about an employer calling me back to work while I was still recovering or trying to increase my milk supply. I didn’t have to beg for a clean and private place to pump or worry how to keep my milk sterile until baby was ready for it. Although our health insurance wouldn’t ship a breast pump until after baby was born, insurance still covered the cost of most of it bringing the price tag from $260 to $70. We were financially able to rent a pump from the hospital until the health insurance breast pump came in. Add the cost of milk storage bags, breast pads, nipple cream, hands-free pumping bras, this choice to exclusively pump cost much more than just my time, but we made it work.
I Should Be Pumping
At first, I celebrated my success. I enjoyed the freedom and family time bottle feeding created. Anyone could feed the baby. Which was helpful because I needed to pump. Exclusively pumping was one of the most isolating experiences I have had as a mother and being a stay at home mother in America is extremely isolating all on its own. I had a lot of support from family and friends and I found more online. However, that created another problem that I wasn’t prepared for.
Mothers online are awesome resources! But the comparison trap got me.
After four months of exclusively pumping (EPing), I was starting to lose myself. An EPing Mom Facebook group came to the rescue many times with the best tips and tricks. Such as stashing your pumping parts in the fridge and just washing them once a day to save time and sanity. Or the best tip was to lube up with nipple cream before pumping. That one was a game-changer. When all of a sudden my pumping sessions became unproductive, an EPing mom saved the day with recommending I try a larger flange size. But as I started to question if I could keep going, the EPing mom celebrating 22 months broke my heart. I mean I celebrated her, but I knew I wouldn’t be celebrating that milestone on my journey with my son.
My friends started to see what a toll EPing was taking on me and suggested that I celebrate how far I was able to make it and then let it go. They were right. On top of the physical pain of being strapped to two pumps for 2.5 hours a day, mentally I was losing it. And it was becoming clear that my body couldn’t sustain the abuse. I was getting less and less milk at each pumping session.
The Last of the Human Milk, the First of the Formula
After six months I gave myself an early Christmas present and turned off the breast pump for the last time. I treated that last exclusively human milk bottle as if I was completing a breastfeeding journey. I looked in my son’s eyes the whole feeding and felt his smile back at me as the most gratitude I had ever received in my adult life.
I started to mix human milk from my freezer stash with formula. Again, not one I had really researched or been informed of. I started with the formula sample that our pediatrician had supplied. The same brand supplied by the hospital. No one informed me of the cost or how difficult it was going to be to budget. No one told me the differences between all the brands and types, which now I’ve learned the main difference is just marketing. I was a new formula feeding parent. I didn’t know what questions to ask. But you better believe that I was relieved that my baby was growing and thriving on the formula we started with and I sure wasn’t going to mess with a good thing.
The Cost of Standard Formula
My son was able to tolerate a standard formula. At that time I didn’t know the differences between name brand and generic. I had not a clue where to start to get this information. So, I stuck with what was given to me and what I knew was working.
Back in 2020, it cost $34 a week to feed our baby. That weekly supply now cost $49, if you are able to find it. When I shop the baby aisle at our grocery store today, most of what is available is the Ready to Feed (RTF) or premade formula. Its convenience is costly without a shortage, but if I needed to formula feed my baby today, it is one of the only options at $1 per hour to feed a baby. The cost was challenging enough in 2020, now I just stand in the baby aisle and cry. I cry for all the formula-feeding parents out there. It was hard in 2020 and now it is just pretty much impossible to formula feed. And what do you do when it is the only option to safely give your baby the nutrition they need?
Where Do We Start?
I didn’t know where to start when I sat down to write about the formula shortage, to tell my formula-feeding story. I do know how to end this story for now though. It is with all of us starting to take action.
We start by voting for leaders that will fight for the American family, for the rights of women and for our nation’s caregivers. For leaders that value human life and the inherent dignity of all. We can no longer accept and tolerate complacency and greed within our country’s leadership.
We start by meeting our neighbors and asking how we can help. Today it may be keeping an eye out for their baby’s formula brand so they don’t have to drive all over the state to feed their baby. Tomorrow it may be voting for the candidate that will work towards a future that includes paternity leave, diapers, wipes, and formula provided to all new parents.
We start by letting go of the archaic belief that there is a best. Breast is best. Fed is best. Informed is best. Supported is best. If we continue to let “best” get in the way of better, we are never going to move forward from this. We will look back and have learned nothing. What we are doing right now to parents in this country is far from best. We owe it to them to do better. Remember, we do not inherit this earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. It’s way past time for us to show up for our future. We start by committing to do better.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of The We Spot, its employees, sponsors, or affiliates.