In the US today, states that have banned abortion can force you to give birth against your will. Yet in those same states – and the whole country – there is a severe shortage of baby formula. The baby formula shortage is just one of the many crises facing American parents: there is still no national pre-K, no guaranteed parental leave, and few protections for people who lose their jobs when they give birth or become pregnant.
But rather than blame the government for failing to protect children and parents, some Americans are blaming parents. Since news of the US baby formula shortage broke, there’s been a tidal wave of news and social media commentary yelling at desperate parents to “just breastfeed”.
And while there’s always ill-informed pushback to issues like this, the response to the formula shortage – which has gotten so bad that the United States is air-lifting baby food from Europe – has once again revealed the huge gap between the lived experiences of people who give birth, and the rest of society’s widely held assumptions.
A lot of this disconnect comes down to the misguided belief that being able to breastfeed is a biological given. People should just be able to get to it once the baby is born, right? Wrong. In reality, there are several reasons why people may not be able to breastfeed. While some parents are unable to produce a healthy breast milk supply, others may be taking certain medications or undergoing medical treatments that aren’t breastfeeding-safe.
The wildly misinformed notion that “breastfeeding is free” has also resurfaced as a popular refrain during this time. It’s an assumption that is rooted in the idea that this type of labor comes at no cost. In fact, there are physical, emotional and financial costs associated with producing breast milk that are rarely accounted for in media and government campaigns encouraging people to breastfeed.
First, there’s the actual monetary costs. Bottles, breast-pumping equipment, milk storage bags, breastfeeding pillows and nursing bras are just a few of the long list of essential items that lactating parents need in order to comfortably and efficiently breastfeed. Then there’s the nutritional requirements for a breastfeeding person’s body. Someone breastfeeding needs more daily calories – an extra 330 to 400 kilocalories a day, according to the CDC – than people who are not breastfeeding, in order to produce nutritious milk.
This is not to mention the actual time spent in the act of breastfeeding. Most breastfeeding babies are fed every two to four hours. This may be slightly less of an issue for parents who are able to stay home in those early months, but for people who aren’t entitled to or cannot afford extended parental leave , that breastfeeding time can also cut into their wages. As Jessica Owens-Young, an assistant professor of health studies at American University, writes, only 51% of employers have worksite lactation support programs. Breastfeeding parents typically need to express milk every few hours, which means about four times in a regular work day. So for people who may not have enough paid time to do it, every break taken to express milk could mean a smaller paycheck.
Research has also shown that socioeconomically marginalized women are often left behind in terms of access to formal and informal breastfeeding supports, as well as access to breastfeeding information. This gap is compounded by the fact that, outside of parent groups, there’s not a lot of public conversation about the struggles that new breastfeeding parents face. There’s a plethora of publicly available resources about all the great benefits of breastfeeding, but not a lot of discussion about people who have had difficulty with the process, or what to do when you can’t.
And with reactions to the formula shortage being so squarely focused on what the breastfeeding parent should be doing, we are once again missing the opportunity to have a real conversation about birthing people and the supports that they need as they navigate parenthood. Whether it’s taking federal action to tackle the industry’s monopoly (four companies control about 90% of the US baby formula market), or implementing policies to better support breastfeeding parents, solutions to the shortage should start with what is best for birthing people, not what seems ideal according to society’s standards.
Ultimately, this crisis isn’t really about whether a person can breastfeed, because they shouldn’t have to live in a society where that’s their only option.