PHILADELPHIA -- First-time mom Liz Lockerman prepped to breastfeed by taking classes, reading books and practicing different baby-holding positions. She even bought a freezer for the basement, in anticipation of building a stash of frozen breast milk for when she returned to work.
But nothing went as planned after the birth of her daughter, Sophie. They struggled so much with feeding that Sophie eventually ended up in the hospital with dehydration. Finally, a therapist convinced the exhausted and stressed-out new mother that it was acceptable to feed her baby formula.
“Society puts this shame and stigma on formula,” said Lockerman, 36, of Philadelphia. “There should not be any shame in how you choose to feed your baby.”
New parents are inundated with messages about the importance of breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding babies for the first six months of life, then transitioning to a combination of solid foods and breast milk until they are a year old. Hospitals earn a World Health Organization “baby-friendly” designation by encouraging parents to breastfeed as soon as possible after birth and limiting access to formula unless medically necessary.
Though well-intentioned, the “breast is best” campaign has put enormous pressure on parents — some say at the expense of their own emotional well-being — and contributed to the stigma of switching to formula “by choice.” Now a national formula shortage is bombarding parents with new guilt from outsiders telling them they would have food for their baby if they’d just breastfeed.
“It’s so unfair that parents are getting caught up in ‘Which camp am I in?’ and “Did I do the right thing?’” said Katy Baker-Cohen, who makes free home visits to new parents as a lactation consultant and nurse for Philadelphia’s Nurse-Family Partnership. “There is research to support that human milk is ideal for babies. But there’s also research that parents who are mentally stable are also ideal for babies.”
Breast milk is considered the “ideal food” for infants because it is loaded with the nutrients babies need to grow. The content of breast milk even changes from week to week to meet the baby’s current needs, such as providing extra antibodies when the baby is sick. For many parents, breastfeeding is a treasured bonding experience with their newborn.
Commercial infant formula, designed to mimic the vitamin and mineral content of breast milk, is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Compared to breast milk, research has found formula is associated with a higher rate of infections and gastrointestinal issues, though other studies have concluded the differences are smaller than once believed.
Breastfeeding is difficult and time consuming — newborns need to eat every two to four hours around the clock. Doctors advise against giving babies bottles, even if they contain breast milk, until at least three weeks, to ensure sustainable breastfeeding practices.
This isn’t always possible for parents who can’t take extended parental leave and whose workplaces don’t give time to pump or space to store milk. Same-sex couples, adoptive parents, people who have had cancer, or those with other underlying health conditions may not have the option of breastfeeding.