Formula Shortage: Why don’t you just “breast feed. It’s free and available on demand.”

In recent weeks, a nationwide baby-formula shortage has left parents scrambling to find enough food to feed their children. More than 40 percent of the usual formula supply is out of stock following supply-chain issues and a recent recall of certain batches of Similac, Alimentum, and EleCare, leading major retailers to ration the amount caregivers can buy. Online, parents who share their woes about the difficulty of finding formula have been met with snide comments about how they should “try breastfeeding,” which a surprising number of people seem to be under the impression is free. There’s a lot of ignorance about how breastfeeding actually works, but the response also reveals how stigmatized formula feeding remains.

 It’s also true that many women are unable to breastfeed or choose to stop for reasons including medical issues, low milk supply, personal preference, or practicality.

 Pumping, a common recommendation to increase supply, and one that adds substantially to the hefty time commitment of nursing, which usually takes around 30 minutes eight to 12 times a day.

But it wasn’t until I was told that I had to stop that I realized just how deep my association between “breastfeeding” and “good mother” went. Feeding my daughter was the most essential thing I did to care for her, and it was hard to escape the feeling that not nursing was a failure. 

It allows the couple to share the responsibility of feeding our daughter equally, including overnight, which was crucial. Breastfeeding dogma often fails to take seriously the risks of sleep deprivation, which can be a trigger for many mental-health issues.

“Around male friends and relatives, it was a relief to pull out a bottle when our daughter was hungry, rather than have to flash a boob or try to find a private place. Even though I was working from home, I was grateful not to have to mess with a breast pump and freezer bags. Dropping my daughter off at daycare with a carton of formula was far simpler.

Even if they don’t say it outright, the assumption that breastfeeding is the superior way to feed a baby is difficult to untangle from the belief that a woman should be home taking care of that child. At the same time, a lack of structural support that acknowledges the true demands of caregiving forces many mothers to rely on formula in order to return to the workplace, given that many jobs — particularly those with lower pay — still do not provide adequate accommodations for pumping.

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