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Perspective: What’s being done about the baby formula shortage? Not enough

Our society is troubled beyond measure if lawmakers don’t step in and get answers for parents

SHARE Perspective: What’s being done about the baby formula shortage? Not enough
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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

Across the internet, as parents struggle to find enough formula to feed their babies, two responses are common from people who think the increasing outcry over the shortage is overblown.

First, people tell mothers to “just” breastfeed. The others say “make it yourself.”

As the mother of five (one currently nursing), let me point out that any woman who has nursed a baby — or any man who has watched his wife struggle to do so — can tell you there’s no “just” when it comes to breastfeeding.

It’s physically demanding, and very often, for any number of reasons, physically impossible. Some mothers have to stay in the hospital while their baby goes home, and others have to take medication that makes their milk dangerous for the baby. Some bodies simply can’t make enough milk, and some women have difficulty pumping. And then, of course, there are the infants that need specialty formulas because of health issues.

As a result, fewer than 35% of American babies are exclusively breastfed at 6 months old and just 15% of American babies are breastfed at age 1. The others rely on formula as their primary source of nutrition.

So why not just make it yourself, as people on the internet casually suggest?

Dr. Whitney Morgan, an American Academy of Pediatrics fellow and a board-certified pediatrician in Texas, told me that while a mixture of evaporated milk, corn syrup and water might keep most infants alive, there will be some who get sick on it, or fail to thrive.

“Upon quick review, this recipe appears to lack several trace elements known to be important for infant cognitive development, and the electrolytes differ significantly from commercial formulas,” Morgan said. “I have seen infants develop life-threatening electrolyte imbalances and even die, following inappropriately prepared formulas. This was far more common 30 years ago than it is now.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics explains, “Formula mixtures made from online or other resources may not have vital components, such as enough iron or vitamins for a baby. Or, they may have too much salt or other nutrients that your baby’s kidneys and liver cannot handle in large amounts.” 

What about the babies of all of the mothers who were sent home with that recipe?

Morgan didn’t pull any punches: “They survived. Except for those who didn’t.”

The numbers don’t lie: In the 1950s, infant mortality was 29.2 babies per 1,000. In 2010, it was down to 6.1. While there are many reasons for the improvement, there’s no doubt that improved nutrition and expanded choices of formula have helped many at-risk babies thrive.

What are parents supposed to do now?

 Two weeks ago I wrote about the shortage, caused by recalls and supply chain problems, and said, “These are terrifying questions that are unasked by our media and unanswered by our leaders.”

Finally, the media are asking, and yet the Biden administration has yet to treat this as the crisis it is. 

If you thought parents were mad about not being able to send their children to school, just wait for the anger of parents going from store to store searching for formula and coming home empty-handed.

Allie Beth Stuckey, host of the podcast “Relatable,” quipped on Twitter:

Last month U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, wrote a letter to to the Biden administration, asking the heads of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration a series of questions, including:

“1. What steps have your agencies taken to minimize the impact of the immediate shortage?

“2. When do your agencies expect baby formula inventory to be back to sufficient levels?

“3. What measures should be taken in the long term to minimize the supply chain disruptions for what is an essential product for many families?”

If senators (especially a Democratic senator) were writing letters to the administration in mid-April and nothing has been said or done to date, it’s clear that the Biden administration’s priorities are elsewhere.

Politically and morally, this is an issue that Republicans can and should be getting ahead of, especially as the abortion debate rages. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., showed how it would be done and led the way, pointing out that the shortage is even worse for mothers who don’t the time to spend hours driving around looking for formula, or the money to have it shipped to them in bulk, as some parents are doing.

It’s time for other Republicans to follow Cotton’s lead, and join with Democrats like Reed to treat this as an issue of utmost priority. It says a great deal about a nation’s priorities when disappearing nutrition for our most vulnerable — infants — doesn’t cause a five-alarm fire in the halls of power. Political inaction on this issue should create a firestorm unlike anything we’ve seen to date. If it doesn’t, our society is troubled beyond measure.

Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News. She is a home-schooling mother of five and a widely published writer on politics, culture and Judaism. She is an editor for the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty.”